The Reagan administration, through its call for other governments to join the United States in pressuring Libya to halt the export of terrorism, appears to be renewing a campaign it has pursued intermittently and unsuccessfully since 1981.
Past efforts to induce other countries to follow the U.S. lead in imposing sanctions against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's revolutionary government have been thwarted by other major industrial powers' reluctance to give up lucrative trade ties that include access to Libya's crude oil.
Also, West European nations such as Italy, France and Britain have been fearful that a confrontation with Qaddafi could weaken their influence in the Middle East by causing other Arab governments to rally behind Libya.
U.S. officials, pointing to what they regard as mounting evidence of Libyan complicity in last Friday's terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna, said yesterday there are some signs that the prevailing European attitudes toward Libya might be changing.
But these officials, who asked not to be identified, cautioned that it is too early to tell whether European anger over the latest terrorist incidents can be channeled into a concerted international campaign of economic sanctions.
On Monday, White House and State Department spokesmen accused Libya of aiding a renegade Palestinian group led by Abu Nidal, a former Palestine Liberation Organization official, in carrying out the airport attacks and said the United States was prepared to work with other governments to "exert pressure" on Libya.
State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman yesterday refused to retreat from those charges despite Libyan denials of involvement. The department issued a report that detailed the Abu Nidal group's history of terrorist activities. It added: "Recently, Libya has begun to provide increased support to the group and Abu Nidal himself and many of the group operations may have moved there."
Redman said, "We're ready to engage in any efforts that we can in order to fight this scourge of terrorism, from wherever it may come, and we do believe that greater international involvement is very useful, and indeed in many cases crucial to that efffort, and we're certainly prepared to cooperate in whatever way we can to reach that end."
The United States has made similar appeals without success since late in 1981 after President Reagan cited evidence that Qaddafi had dispatched assassination teams to murder top-ranking U.S. officials. At the time, the administration invalidated U.S. passports for travel to Libya and called on all Americans to leave the North African country.
These steps were followed in March 1982 by an embargo on oil from Libya, which had been supplying about 2 percent of U.S. imports, and by restrictions on the export of American technology to Libya. The administration said at the time that its aim was to curtail the revenues used by Qaddafi to finance terrorist groups.
However, the administration's efforts to convince its principal allies to take similar measures were rejected by the Europeans and Japan. They argued that isolating Qaddafi only would make him more reckless and that the wiser course was to keep their lines open to Libya as a means of influencing him.
U.S. officials privately regard that argument as a rationalization by countries enjoying substantial trade with Libya or dependent on Libyan oil to fuel their industries. The biggest purchasers of Libyan oil are Italy, West Germany, Spain, France and Turkey, all of which are partners of the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Similarly, the largest exporters to Libya are Italy, France, West Germany, Britain and Japan. In 1981, the last year for which detailed figures are available, Italy, which is Libya's largest trading partner, bought $2.5 billion in exports from Libya and sold it exports worth $3.7 billion.
More recently, the worldwide oil glut has eroded Libya's importance as a source of oil for Europe and Japan. In addition, some countries, notably Italy, which had a large arms supply relationship with Libya, have cut back on their sales to Qaddafi. But while these factors have encouraged U.S. hopes that the West Europeans might be more willing to consider sanctions, there has been no real sign that they are ready to absorb the financial losses that a tough trade embargo could entail.
Another important factor in European calculations has been Qaddafi's continued ability to depend on the support of other Arab governments. Except for Egypt, which still has not overcome its isolation from the rest of the Arab world, the Arab states, motivated by fear or a sense of solidarity, either have praised Qaddafi's support of anti-Israeli terrorism or remained silent.
As a result, fear of a hostile Arab reaction to moves against Qaddafi has been an inhibition for Italy, whose government follows a policy of cultivating close Arab ties. The same motives to a lesser extent apply to France and Britain, which also have sought to increase their influence in the region.
The State Department's report on Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri Banna, was largely a compilation of incidents that have been attributed to his group since it broke away from the PLO in 1974.
The report charged that the group had conducted almost 20 attacks during 1985, including the November hijacking of an Egyptian airliner to Malta that cost 60 lives, the July grenade attack against a popular tourist cafe in Rome and the April attack at the Athens airport where a rocket hit a Jordanian airliner but failed to explode.
In an Oct. 14 interview with the West German magazine Der Spiegel, Abu Nidal was quoted as saying he went to the United States in 1977 in the guise of a "prominent Saudi" for heart surgery at an undisclosed location. U.S. officials said yesterday that the FBI doubts the story.