WASHINGTON, April 15, 1986 (UPI) - The latest U.S. attack on Libya was rooted in a 5-year-old vow by President Reagan of ''swift and effective retribution'' against terrorism. While swift, even Reagan acknowledges its effectiveness remains to be seen.
From the earliest days of his presidency, Reagan has leaped at the chance to challenge Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy in words and actions -- pulling the tail of the ''mad dog of the Middle East'' to test and, at times, to provoke.
When U.S. forces struck against Libyan naval vessels and missile batteries last month, Reagan justified the action as self-defense, exercising the right of free passage in international waters.
At the time, other administration officials made no secret of the fact that U.S. warships and aircraft had crossed the Khadafy-proclaimed ''line of death'' in anticipation of a military response that would invite retaliation.
There was no such pretext Monday, as U.S. aircraft struck what Reagan called ''the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar Khadafy's subversive activities.'' The principle, Reagan said, was not revenge, but self-defense ''fully consistent'' with the U.N. Charter.
''Today,'' he said, ''we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again. It gives me no pleasure to say that, and I wish it were otherwise.''
''I have no illusion that tonight's action will ring down the curtain on Khadafy's reign of terror,'' Reagan said. ''But this mission, violent though it was, can bring closer a safer and more secure world for decent men and women. We will persevere.''
The military option, long a point of contention within the administation, was intended not so much to bring terrorists to justice as to send a message -- or a series of related messages -- to Khadafy, the Libyan people and U.S. allies.
Secretary of State George Shultz said the action was ''sure to some degree'' to reduce Khadafy's capability to sponsor terror. Just as important, he said, ''We also have registered the point with him and with other Libyans that they will pay a price -- that there is a cost - to engaging in terrorism around the world.''
Administration officials characterized the air attacks not as an end in themeslves, but as further escalation of a campaign of pressure on Khadafy. Having all but exhausted other unilateral action, including economic and diplomatic isolation, Reagan has turned to military action as one of the few options available to him in the absence of support from West European allies.
The fact that France denied permission for F-111 fighter-bombers based in Britain to fly a direct route over French soil to their targets in Libya -- more than doubling their flying time -- underlined the problem Reagan still faces in organizing a unified effort to islolate or destabilize Khadafy.
Emboldened by support from Congress and the public, Reagan left the threat of further military reprisals against Khadafy hanging in the air. But even his advisers agree that his pledge to ''ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere'' and to force Khadafy to cease ''his relentless pursuit of terror'' will require more than the surgical strikes carried out Monday night.
One hope is that the perceived success of the U.S. action will diminish allied reluctance to turn against Khadafy.
To some U.S. officials, a concerted effort by the West to cut Libya off from the rest of the world appears the only realistic way to deal with Khadafy, short of an all-out military confrontation. The latter carries the risk of damaging political repercussions, or rebellion within Libya itself, which the administration would like to see but has been limited in its ability to promote.
The U.S. air strikes Monday may have done little more than bought additional time to determine the next step.