The Reagan administration has been rattling swords over Libya for five days now -- an extended period whose effect is open to vastly different interpretations. To some Washington analysts outside the government, President Reagan has painted himself into a corner: After talking tough for so long, the President must order an attack, or he will lose face and any benefit he gained by last month's strikes against Libya.
Others say the administration is cleverly intimidating Col. Muammar Qaddafi by letting him sit in his bunker and sweat. Under this interpretation, the constant state of uncertainty caused by United States threats will undermine Qaddafi's will and his domestic political support.
But there is another important audience listening to the rattling sabers: America's European allies, who appear eager to stave off US military action aimed at Libya.
In England, the US Air Force has begun an unusual buildup of forces, with as many as 15 KC-10A tankers evident in recent days on the tarmac at Mildenhall air base. The tankers could be used to refuel US warplanes for the long flight from European bases to Libyan targets.
At press time, meanwhile, the US Sixth Fleet, cruising in the central Mediterranean, had given no sign that it was about to loose its power on Colonel Qaddafi.
Reagan ``certainly has Qaddafi believing something is going to happen,'' said Michael Vlahos, professor of security studies at Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. ``It keeps him on tenterhooks.''
There is, of course, the question of whether military force is what Qaddafi is really scared of. ``No matter what the US and its allies do, the thing that is hurting Qaddafi the most is falling oil prices,'' says Clement Miller, an analyst with Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates.
Falling prices have cut Libya's oil revenues in half in recent months, says Mr. Miller. Thus, Qaddafi's attention may well be focused on this week's emergency session of OPEC as much as on the Sixth Fleet. Oil producing nations are attempting to hammer out a production agreement to firm up prices.
Ironically, US firms are still helping Qaddafi pump his oil out of the ground. Despite official economic sanctions against Libya, the US government has allowed Marathon, Conoco, and Amerada Hess to keep their investments in Libya's government-owned Oasis Oil Company.
The rationale behind this dispensation is that the only buyer for the three companies' shares is Libya itself, which could get ``fire sale'' prices if it knew the US companies had to sell, according to an administration economic official.
At the White House on Monday the mood was one of forced calm, as final decisions regarding a military strike against Libya apparently remained unmade.
Doing his best to remain genial, White House spokesman Larry Speakes at a briefing kept saying ``no comment'' to persistent questions from reporters about the administration's Libyan plans. He denied that the President was scheduled to meet with top advisers and congressional leaders to plan the next step in the US campaign to dissuade Libya from supporting terrorism.
With no attack made at press time, the focus of interest among Washington observers was on Europe -- specifically, whether President Reagan was waiting for the advice of allies, or if he was in the process of telling them what the US would do.
The Reagan administration has been transmitting messages to its allies for several days via UN Ambassador Vernon Walters, who was in Paris Monday after meeting with West German officials over the weekend. Rome is expected to be Mr. Walters's next stop.
The White House is also about to start receiving messages on the Libyan question via West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who is to arrive in Washington for talks today. Mr. Genscher comes straight from an emergency meeting of European Community foreign ministers in The Hague, called to discuss possible responses to Libyan involvement with terrorists.
The officials agreed to adopt diplomatic sanctions against Libya, including reductions in Libyan embassy staffs and tighter visa requirements for Libyan nationals. They also called for ``restraint on all sides'' -- referring to their desire that the US refrain from using force.