The "picture in men's minds" about a nation, to use the words of Walter Lippmann, is important to a nation's prestige and to its power to influence the course of events in a civilized community. The United States is the greatest military power in the world, and it does not need to flex its muscles in public to prove it, especially to the Russians.

Destroying two inferior Russian-made planes of a small primitive country raises a question about how responsible, and beneficent, we are in the use of our great power.

The recent incident in the Gulf of Sidra is reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 4, 1964. Technically, our planes may have been in international air space as the Pentagon asserts, just as the Destroyer Maddox was in 1964, but whether our forces were deliberately provocative, seeking an opportunity to engage the Libyan planes, is another matter. We should remind ourselves of the ultimate consequences of that small incident in the Bay of Tonkin 17 years ago.

The obvious satisfaction of the administration, endorsed by the enthusiastic cheer for "muscle" of the men on the Constellation, reminds one of a victory in the Super Bowl, but this is a dangerous scenario we are playing. Coming so soon after the pre-emptive attack on the reactor in Baghdad, and the memory of the seizure of our embassy in Tehran and the invasion of Afghanistan, it gives one an uneasy feeling that traditional rules of conduct among nations are being seriously eroded.

In recent weeks, there have been reports in Newsweek and other media that the United States wishes to and is plannikng to remove Col. Muammar Qaddafi by one means or another, and the scenario appears to be unfolding.

In itself, the destruction of two inferior planes belonging to Qaddafi is of little consequence. But it of great importance to the security of all people how the United States uses its power and how its purpose is perceived by others.

Qaddafi has few, if any, supporters in Western Europe and hardly deserves any anywhere. Nevertheless, reports from several of those countries evidence serious concern about the implication of this dramatic use of superior military power so close to the strife-torn Middle East. This concern may well be enhanced by the ongoing struggle in Poland and the unsettled status of the neutron bomb.

In the Western World, since David confronted Goliath, small and weak people have identified with the underdog. We all cheered the Finns against the Russians, and we were shocked by the German rape of Belgium and the Russian conquest of Afghanistan.

There were other reasons, of course, for favoring the Finns, Belgians and the Afghans, but the fact that they were small was not an insignificant element.

This is enthusiastic use of superior force against the background of our reluctance, if not refusal, to negotiate arms reductions with the Russians, and our acceptance with no serious objection of the raids on Lebanon and Baghdad, with American planes, may well lead other nations, our friends included, to believe that we are no longer interested in negotiation rather than confrontation, as we professed to be in the era of "peaceful co-existence" in the early 1970s.

We are in danger of losing our capacity for leadership in the Western World if our allies and others come to believe that we are trigger-happy, that we intend to rely on military power to settle the differences we have with the Communist world. It will be a tragedy if this should occur. The validity of our conception of a good society cannot be proved by military means. It can only be proved by military means. It can only be proved by the use of our great power of the peace of the world and the happiness of our people.