As the United States flexes its muscles in the Gulf of Sidra, diplomatic observers raise two concerns about the possible consequences of the frontal challenge to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi: Will the administration's baiting of Qaddafi lead to an escalation of terrorist attacks against US citizens and installations in Europe and elsewhere?
Will the action contribute to a wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, especially in the context of rising Arab frustration over the lack of movement toward an Arab-Israeli peace, the lingering Iran-Iraq war, and (with the drop in oil prices) a loss of economic power?
At the United Nations Tuesday the US protested what it called Libya's ``unjustified attacks'' against American naval vessels in international waters. US Ambassador Vernon Walters warned in a letter to the Security Council that any further attacks against American forces ``will also be resisted with force if necessary.''
Reaction to the US move against Qaddafi is mixed. President Reagan appears to have strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill as well as the backing of many in the diplomatic community for ordering US ships off Libya to shoot back if attacked by Libyan forces.
It is widely agreed that the US has the right of innocent passage through the Gulf of Sidra, regarded as international waters, and that the American response to Libya's attacks has been measured and legally justified.
But some lawmakers and diplomatic experts suggest that the administration's decision to challenge Qaddafi, while it may gratify many Americans psychologically, may prove counterproductive in the long term. There is particular concern about an increase of terrorism.
``If the issue were to end here and Qaddafi were to have learned a lesson, that's great,'' says Robert Kupperman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
``But what we are doing is guaranteeing a wave of serious terrorist acts. I doubt Qaddafi will do much in the US or do it immediately, but we will see plenty of trouble in Europe against US interests.''
If Libyan-sponsored terrorism does increase in the months ahead, diplomatic experts say, the United States could end up looking ineffectual. ``It's not an effective counter to terrorist organizations,'' says Harold Saunders, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Qaddafi is happy to take an additional pounding because it enhances his prestige -- and that does not add up to a plus for the United States.''
Some legislators express similar views. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday he feared that when Qaddafi decides he is no match for the US military, he will move to ``his own playing field, which is the playing field of terrorism.
Ostensibly, the administration moved its ships into the Gulf of Sidra to affirm its right of free passage in international waters. Libya claims the entire gulf as its territorial waters, a claim denied by most of the world community.
But the issue of terrorism lies at the heart of the administration's move, administration officials say privately. The US has long felt frustrated by its inability to retaliate against Libyan-backed terrorist acts, including the brutal strikes at the Rome and Vienna airports last December. The imposition of economic sanctions by Western countries has not proved effective, and the US has sought a way to serve warning on the quixotic Libyan leader.
Responding to the growing concern in Washington about an escalation of terrorism, the State Department said Tuesday that US embassies throughout the world have been told to take prudent precautions. It also warned that the US holds Libya responsible for the safety of the Americans still working there.
Not unexpectedly, the Arab world has condemned the US air strikes at Libyan boats and missile sites as provocative and armed aggression. But diplomatic opinion is divided on how seriously the administration should take such condemnation or on how the Libyan events will affect the US image in the region.
Experienced Middle East hands suggest that, whatever the Arab states may be saying publicly, in private they are probably not unhappy that the US has given Qaddafi a slap on the wrist. There is no love in the Arab world for the Libyan leader, who has stirred up so much trouble around the world, even though the mystique of Arab unity necessitates a rallying to his side whenever he is under attack by the US.
On the other hand, some analysts express concern that the US maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra, coming on top of other Arab grievances, may accelerate the erosion of American prestige in the region.
The potential impact of US actions on Libya's neighbors is also seen to be worrisome. Raymond Baker, a Mideast scholar at Williams College, suggests that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is probably the most vulnerable to attack internally as a result of growing anti-Americanism.
``On narrow legal grounds America is fully within its rights,'' Professor Baker says. ``But what seems just shockingly absent is a sense of the political repercussions. This is an area of the world where we have substantial stakes we can't protect by military means. To narrow concerns to a legal issue which we try to defend militarily is a dangerous illusion when in fact we're jeopardizing our larger political interests.''
Staff writer George Moffett III contributed to this report.