Washington — Before the United States makes a move against Libya, it must think of the 1, 500 American citizens now working and living there. Withdrawing those Americans, most of them oil company employees or their dependents, might hurt Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, even more than boycotting Libyan oil.
The withdrawal of American oil workers would result in a loss of technological skills now available to Libya -- skills that might not be easily replaced.
G. Henry M. Schuler, an energy consultant who has spent the last 20 years following developments in Libya, argues that withdrawing the American technicians from Libya would be a fully justified ''defensive move.'' But he says that the six oil companies now operating in Libya will not pull out unless they get ''an unequivocal request'' from the US government to do so.
Oil company officials say that the Libyan government has been treating their employees with care and respect, and that life under the Libyan sun has been a good life. Qaddafi himself has stated that the Americans in Libya will suffer no harm. But government officials who have to look at the big picture -- and look ahead -- realize that those Americans now receiving the best of treatment at the hands of the Libyans are nonetheless potential hostages.
In May of this year, following the expulsion of Libyan diplomats from the US, the State Department advised Americans not to travel to or reside in Libya because of a lack of consular services and protection for Americans.
There are two schools of thought in Washington at the moment on the way in which the Reagan administration is handling reports of a Libyan assassination plot against President Reagan. One group of experts holds that the administration has helped to overdramatize the reports, thus building up Qaddafi's image in the Arab world and bolstering his ego. The other school holds that American strategic interests require bold action against Qaddafi and that a certain amount of publicity might help to deter him.
Roger Fisher, an expert on negotiating at the Harvard University Law School, belongs to the first school of thought, arguing that nothing is accomplished by building up Qaddafi as an enemy of the United States.
''We have a John Wayne image of the world,'' said Professor Fisher. ''You ride in with your six guns loaded. . . . But what you do is to push Qaddafi toward the Soviets. That's the same thing that we did with Castro.''
''We should have a more forward-looking approach to what we want to have happen over the months ahead and not simply react to every move Qaddafi makes,'' Fisher said. ''The Libyans are better off having relations with both the Americans and the Soviets.''
Fisher thinks that withdrawing the American companies from Libya would be likely to escalate Libyan hostility.
Mr. Schuler, a former Foreign Service officer and oil negotiator who is now with the accounting firm of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, has a different view:
''For more than a decade, many of the experts have taken the view that Qaddafi is not all that important or that much of a threat,'' Schuler says. ''They've refused to take Qaddafi seriously. . . . And until now, our policy has been marked by indecision and inaction