WASHINGTON -- The United States and its allies are unlikely to press for tougher sanctions against Libya any time soon, if at all, even if Col. Muammar el Kadafi fails to surrender two airliner-bombing suspects, Western diplomats said yesterday.
The campaign leading to last month's U.N. Security Council vote to impose sanctions pushed U.S., British and French clout at the United Nations to its limits and strained U.S. relations with the Arab world, said the diplomats, who are engaged in discussions about future moves that might be taken against Libya.
Barring a new and serious provocation by Libya, one of the diplomats said, no effort will be made to toughen the sanctions. In fact, the three allies now must persuade countries opposed to the sanctions that they were necessary, he said.
A senior U.S. official noted that Secretary of State James A. Baker III had not ruled out the possibility of a future boycott of Libyan oil, but added: "I don't think we would move to the next phase very quickly."
"It's unlikely we could go any further in the [U.N.] council," the official said. He voiced doubt that support could be assembled for an oil boycott, which would affect European countries that import Libyan oil.
Libya began expelling diplomats yesterday in retaliation against one of the sanctions, which required countries to reduce "significantly" Libya's representation at its embassiess abroad.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry said at least six heads of embassies had been ordered to reduce their staffs, the Associated Press reported.
Colonel Kadafi also maneuvered to test the sanctions himself. At the United Nations, Egypt relayed a Libyan request that a ban on flights to and from Libya be relaxed to allow Colonel Kadafi to fly to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, according to Reuters.
The sanctions forbid all flights except humanitarian ones, and ban arms sales and the provision of aircraft components, engineering or service.
They marked the first time the Security Council had imposed sanctions in response to state-sponsored terrorism. The council's March 31 vote followed Libyan refusal to comply with a previous resolution demanding that it surrender two suspects accused in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, compensate victims and halt support for terrorism.
The United States and its allies won 10 Security Council votes, in part by explaining that the sanctions "fit the crime" of airline terrorism and are, as British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd put it, persuasive rather than punitive.
Still, given the five abstentions in the voting, "We are very conscious of the need to demonstrate that they were appropriate," a Western diplomat said.
The sanctions caused strains among a number of Third World countries who fear the United States is trying to dominate the United Nations. Among Arabs, there was already resentment over U.N. failure to penalize Israel for alleged violation of U.N. resolutions.
The crisis put Mr. Mubarak, one of America's closest friends in the Arab world, in a difficult spot. Egypt shares a long border with Libya, and more than 1 million Egyptians work there.
In a four-hour session with Egyptian legislators Wednesday, Mr. Mubarak gave a detailed account of his efforts to mediate the dispute and said they would continue. He also pledged to uphold the sanctions, stressing that world respect for Egypt is based on its commitment to international law.
U.S. officials say legal arguments raised against the Security Council action already have been weakened by the World Court's refusal to block the sanctions.
But allies are under pressure to show that they will be administered in strict accordance with the resolution and that they will be lifted if Libya complies. A provision was included allowing them to be reviewed every six months.
The United Nation's first test may involve whether and how to punish any countries that refuse to abide by the sanctions. Sudan and Iraq both have signaled defiance. For Iraq, a U.S. official said, this would be just another argument against easing the tight embargo imposed before the Persian Gulf war. Sudan could face restriction of its airline flights.
Libya won't be crippled by the sanctions but will be "extremely inconvenienced," a Western diplomat argued. The country lacks a large arms industry, and the ban on air travel will cause "great disruption."
Despite Libya's current defiance, Robert G. Neumann, director of Middle East Studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicts that Libya will keep trying to extricate itself, thus preventing the need for stiffer sanctions.
"Clearly, Kadafi is looking for some kind of a way out," he said.