Sanctions have been announced and assets frozen, but the main ammunition in the administration's current battle against terrorism seems to be words, as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Ronald Reagan compete with each other in the oldest game on the playground: name-calling.
At Tuesday night's press conference Reagan took his turn: "I find he's not only a barbarian, but he's flaky."
This followed Qaddafi's comment, delivered from atop a tractor Sunday, that Reagan is an "Israeli dog."
"I wouldn't say the president is responding to him," said White House deputy press secretary Peter Roussel yesterday. "I'd say the president is just stating his view and his perceptions of the situation. We discuss responses and positions, obviously, but 'Let's call him an X today'? No. I think it was Reagan being Reagan."
And continuing to hone a valuable skill at the same time.
"That ability to find the phrase that both amuses the audience and at the same time deflates or diminishes the target is a real knack," said columnist and Carter White House press secretary Jody Powell.
"And it's calculated to appeal to the public's feelings, particularly in a situation like last night's when there was very little else to be done. I think it must also have come from his frustration. He was there announcing an array of sanctions that he and everyone else knows don't amount to a hill of beans."
The latest round of name-calling is nothing new. Reagan, after all, is the man who referred to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega as "the little dictator who went to Moscow in his green fatigues."
And others can play the game. Cuban leader Fidel Castro has hurled his share, calling Gerald Ford "a public liar" and Reagan "a madman, an imbecile and a bum."
In the realm of high-level insults, certain blistering terms tend to reappear. In 1976 Ford told the world Castro was "an international outlaw." Tuesday night Reagan suggested Qaddafi's government is "an outlaw regime."
Reagan has been developing his repertoire for a while. On Tuesday he said, "Qaddafi deserves to be treated as a pariah in the world community." Last year there was the statement that five nations, including Libya, form a terrorist network ruled by "the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich."
"It vents presidential frustration," said David Gergen, former Reagan White House chief of communications. "There are times when every president feels like throwing his glasses against the wall because of something dastardly someone like Qaddafi has done."
Tuesday night's hurling of the rhetorical glasses against the wall was "something people can relate to," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "All the special diplomatic language people don't understand. 'There were frank and full discussions' -- I don't think the average person has any idea what 'frank and full discussions' means. 'A principal aide said,' or 'at the highest level of discussion' -- there's almost a language of people at the highest level within the Beltway which people outside don't understand."
Ventures into the vernacular, White House pollster Richard Wirthlin thinks, serve Reagan well.
"It's the American jargon," he said. "I don't think the word 'flake' existed 15 years ago. The president's use of language is so current -- it does have appeal to young people. Everyone, especially under 45, clearly understands what a 'flake' is. 'Barbarian' is a more classic, more expected phrase to use."
Continuing his explication of an insult, Wirthlin said, "It wasn't necessarily the use of the 'flake' or the 'barbarian.' It was the juxtaposition of those two words, I think, that gave it impact. A barbarian -- you think of someone unfettered from normal conventions, but someone who's flaky isn't quite as ominous or isn't quite as threatening."
But this kind of thing has its limits. "I think this is a different kind of use of words than are used in a more narrow arena of American politics," said Wirthlin. "The president as a rule doesn't tag political opponents. As a rule, ad hominem attacks are not as effective as the one-liners. They resonate more."
And Tuesday night had its one-liner as well. When asked if he worried about Qaddafi's threats to bring terrorism to America if there is any U.S. or Israeli retaliation for the Rome and Vienna bombings, Reagan answered, "Well, I wish he was planning to do that himself. I'd be happy to welcome him."
Gergen, now an editor at U.S. News & World Report, described the comment as "the shoot-out at high noon. You suddenly had the Gary Cooper image."