ONE of the main factors underlying President Reagan's decision to strike at Libyan targets was the US assessment that there would be no military intervention by the Soviet Union. For a number of days in advance of the strikes, the United States kept the Soviets abreast of the mood in the White House and President Reagan's growing certainty of Libyan involvement in the West Berlin discoth`eque bombing. The Soviet charg'e in Washington was informed of the actual attack as it was taking place Monday evening, Washington time.
But even earlier, the Soviets could have been left in little doubt about US intentions.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz discussed with outgoing Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin last week the growing frustration of the US with Libya's Colonel Qaddafi. The possibility of US military action against Libya must have been implicit.
It is also possible that the Libyan problem was discussed by President Reagan himself with Mr. Dobrynin when the two met last week.
Just what Soviet reaction Dobrynin may have indicated, we can only conjecture. But other signals from Moscow seemed to indicate clearly that the Soviets had their own concerns about Colonel Qaddafi and had little stomach for going to war on his behalf.
One extraordinary signal was offered in public last week by Georgi Arbatov, one of the Soviet Union's leading propagandists, when he addressed American newspaper editors in Washington.
Asked about Soviet support for Colonel Qaddafi in the event of US action against Libya, Mr. Arbatov went out of his way to play down such support. He made the statement in the presence of Mark Palmer, deputy assistant secretary of state, the State Department's top specialist on US-Soviet relations.
Libya is useful to the Soviets for a number of reasons. It has oil. It has warm-water ports which can service Soviet ships in the Mediterranean. It is next to Egypt, a country that has rebuffed the Soviets. Libya has also proved useful as a transfer point for Soviet-bloc weapons to such countries as Grenada in the past and Nicaragua today. The Soviets have sold Qaddafi for his own internal use a substantial amount of military equipment. Thousands of Soviet trainers are in Libya to show the Libyans how to use this equipment.
But all that once said, the relationship between Qaddafi and Moscow is precarious. At least in advance of US military operations, the Soviets were not prepared to warn the US that they would intervene on behalf of the erratic Arab leader. If anything, they seem to have flashed the US a tacit green light.
Another factor in the decisionmaking process was the intelligence estimate that Colonel Qaddafi has little real support in the Arab world.
Critics of the recent Gulf of Sidra exercises argued that US air strikes against Libya had made Qaddafi a hero among other Arab nations. That is not the conclusion arrived at by US intelligence sources. Although the Arab world perfunctorily rallies around Libya publicly, many Arab leaders privately speak scathingly of the Libyan leader. The Washington estimate is that there will be a repeat of this pattern after the most recent air strikes -- public Arab support for Qaddafi, but a good deal of private Arab satisfaction over the air raids and not much tangible aid for him.
Although a number of Arab nations feel obliged to engage in a public embrace of Qaddafi, the fact is that a number have reason to fear him, and have already had personal encounters with his apparatus of terror.
The United States and Israel may be his principal declared foes, but Colonel Qaddafi's hit list has included many other nationalities, too.