"The expulsion of Libyan diplomats from the United States is only the first visible step in what is likely to become a series of coordinated actions aimed at gradually increasing pressure on Libya.
In a sharp departure from the Relatively benign attitude of the Carter administration toward oil-flush Libya, the new administration has clearly decided to get tough. As a reflection of this, the language some administration officials are using in private about Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is a good deal harsher than that being used in public by State Department spokesmen.
The get-tough policy derives in part from the Reagan administation's decision to place high priority on combating terrorism, particularly that which is alleged to have Soviet support. Libya gets most of its military equipment from the Soviets. It has been repeatedly accused of serving as a training base in the arts of sabotage and terrorism for Palestinian guerrillas and others.
But Libya also is America's third-largest supplier of oil, providing as much as 10 percent of US petroleum imports.
Oil may have been one factor in restraining the Carter administration when it came to Libya. Says one well-placed former Carter administration official: "I think Carter couldn't see what could be gained by moving against Qaddafi. . . . There were also the 2,000 Americans in Libya. What if somebody decided to retaliate against them? But there was still a little more of a benign attitude than I could ever understand."
In dealing with terrorism, key Carter administration officials considered the main problem to be the resolution of local grievances that, in their view, gave rise to it. They thought the Soviets sometimes manipulated and exploited terrorism but did not play a critical role in fostering or expanding it. In other words, even without the Soviets, terrorists would find their weapons and training somewhere and carry on with their deadly work. The Reagan administration has sharply challenged that thesis, accusing the Soviets of fostering terrorism in the world.
Beside the fact that Libya is seen here as part of such a Soviet scheme, it holds another advantage for administration planners:
To many Americans, Colonel Qaddafi is seen as a villain. For an administration that wants to demonstrate its strength in an increasingly complicated world, tightening the screws on the Libyan leader looks like a fairly simple task -- at least in the early stages.
Administration "pragmatists," who are likely to be under constant pressure from "idealogues" to act forcefully in the world, can point to the anti-Qaddafi campaign as evidence of their virility and ideological purity.
Administration officials do not seem to think that the US oil company employees working in Libya are in danger of retaliation from the Libyans. The companies have had a good relationship with Qaddafi, who would find it hard to switch rapidly from the American oil market to another.
Aside from the terrorism charge, American grievances against Qaddafi include concern over failure to allow a third country to represent US interests in Libya and last year's Libyan invasion of neighboring Chad. One of the Americans' closest friends in the Middle East, Egyptian President Sadat, believes the presence of Libyan troops in Chad threatens Sudan, from which the Nile River flows into Egypt.
Libyan officials have denied that they have anything to do with "exporting" terrorism. The y also have declared that American oil company personnel working in Libya and their families are in no danger.