Facing a new wave of terrorist kidnappings in Beirut, the United States may soon take action to reduce the number of Americans in Lebanon not on official government business. Passport restrictions would be designed to take Americans out of harm's way in a nation where terrorists have declared virtual open season on foreign nationals.
US law empowers the secretary of state to place restrictions on the use of American passports in countries where armed hostilities are in progress or where US citizens are in imminent danger. Such restrictions now apply to travel to Libya.
Similar restrictions on travel in, to, or through Lebanon may be imposed within the next day or two, US sources indicate.
Such restrictions would also respond to the growing impatience felt by many American officials with US citizens who have put themselves and US policy at risk by remaining in Lebanon despite repeated warnings of danger by the State Department.
``We can't have a whole country's government and policy jeopardized because some of its nationals insist on taking imprudent steps,'' says one US expert on terrorism.
An 1868 law gives the president the right to take all action short of war to secure the release of Americans unlawfully detained abroad. But Reagan administration officials concede that the US has few options left to prevent future hostage takings or to secure the release of hostages now being held.
The new US restrictions would apply to Americans already living in Lebanon. But a US official says an adequate ``breathing space'' of perhaps one or two months would be provided before Americans living in Lebanon would be required to leave. Violators might be subject to criminal penalties and fines such as those now imposed on Americans misusing passports.
``We want to make it as difficult as possible for Americans to get to and remain in Lebanon so they will not become potential targets for kidnapping,'' an administration official says.
The restrictions would not apply to US government personnel working in Lebanon. Despite calls by members of Congress to close the US Embassy in Beirut, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Monday no such plans are being considered.
``It is important that we stay on the job, and that we do not allow terrorists to attempt to run the United States government out of the Middle East,'' Mr. Speakes said.
On Saturday, kidnappers disguised as security guards seized three American professors and an Indian colleague from the campus of Beirut University College. In all, 26 foreign nationals are now being held in Lebanon, including eight Americans.
Reagan administration officials say Saturday's kidnappings appear to be linked to the pending extradition by West Germany of Muhammad Ali Hamadi, a Lebanese man sought by the US in connection with the 1985 hijacking of a Trans World Airlines flight to Beirut.
President Reagan on Monday condemned the seizure of foreigners in Lebanon as a ``declaration of war against civilization.''
For security reasons, State Department officials decline to say how many Americans are still living in Lebanon. Unofficial estimates place the number at about 1,500, most of whom are Americans of Lebanese ancestry.
The number of US citizens who could readily be identified as Americans by a potential kidnapper is ``dramatically'' smaller, one US official says. That number is perhaps no more than 100, according to a private US analyst.
Those who remain are primarily educators and missionaries, plus Americans who have chosen to stay in Lebanon because they are married to Lebanese citizens. The once active American business community in Beirut has completely disappeared. Even the city's leading Western institution, the American University in Beirut, no longer has any American faculty, staff, or students, according to a New York-based spokesman.
State Department officials say the US Embassy in Beirut has directly contacted many of the Americans in Lebanon, urging them to leave the country.
Despite disclaimers that there is little the US can do to help those who have ignored warnings to leave, continuing pressures - ranging from efforts by hostage families to the imperative of national honor - will keep the US focused on ways to get the hostages released.
``I don't think the American public as a whole, despite the statements of their government, would be comfortable turning their backs on any Americans held hostage abroad,'' says a US official. ``We're not that kind of people.''