For 10 days the Reagan administration agonized out loud over what to do in response to the Rome and Vienna airport massacres. Anonymous gangbusters in the policy-making circles gave us heavy hints of military "retaliation" against Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Then, one by one, the military options -- air strikes against assorted targets -- were discarded. Finally, with all the fanfare of a rare, nationally televised press conference, the president gave Qaddafi his best shot:

He called him a "barbarian" and his regime an "outlaw." He summoned a posse of "other nations" to "join us in denying (Libya) the normal economic and diplomatic privileges of the civilized world." He imposed the few remaining sanctions available to the United States, mild in comparison to the diplomatic and economic breaks already in effect to no avail since 1981. Then came the crusher: "If these steps do not end Qaddafi's terrorism, I promise you that further steps will be taken."

Only an administration in a chronic state of confusion about how to counter terrorism could have done as much in so short a time to make a bad matter worse. It built up the villain in the eyes of the audience that most concerns him and made the good guys look impotent and irresolute.

The point has only marginally to do with the measures finally adopted. If nothing else, they constitute a statement of protest. If the 1,500 or so American citizens living in Libya obey the president's order to come home (or defy it at their own risk), the threat of a hostage crisis will be relieved. That would remove one (but by no means all) of the arguments against a military strike in some future terrorist showdown with Libya.

But it would not remove the real problem, which has to do with the way the measures were taken: the noisy, disorderly prelude; the expectations raised of some dramatic, decisive military action -- and then dashed. The inevitable anticlimax can only be compounded by the necessary reliance on collective economic and diplomatic ganging up on Libya, without much effort to secure agreement in advance and with ample evidence that the most crucial collaborators don't want to collaborate.

The British, West Germans, French and Italians all value their commercial connections with Libya, either as importers of Libyan oil or suppliers of industrial goods. They have far larger numbers of their nationals residing in Libya. They are not spoiling for a fight with Qaddafi in anything like the way that Reagan seems to be. This is not because they don't appreciate the danger but because they do.

The notion that the Europeans "are going to wake up," as it was put the other day by the State Department's counterterrorist expert, Robmisreading of the European experience. To argue, as Oakley did, that the "Europeans are discovering that terrorism is becoming intolerable" is a pretty patronizing way to talk to countries that have been coping for years with terrorist outbreaks on a scale unknown in the United States.

So the administration will be hard put to mobilize the international posse the president has in mind. European leaders have constituencies that profit from trade with Libya. Italy, for example, is Libya's largest trading partner; the West Germans find Qaddafi a good customer with cash in hand and a taste for quality merchandise. The Europeans also have experience that tells them that sanctions don't work. And their firsthand experience with terrorism does not encourage them to go out of their way to provoke more of the same. They would prefer to deal quietly with the problem by means that the Reagan administration itself espouses: tighter security, better intelligence and more effective international pooling of these sorts of sub-rosa efforts, with minimum publicity-seeking.

Ironically, the president showed recognition of these considerations when he boasted that 126 terrorist acts had been aborted in the last year but declined to give examples. The irony is that while he was acknowledging the need for discretion, he was publicly promising "further steps" if the ones he announced "do not end Qaddafi's terrorism."

Those measures are not going to end Qaddafi's terrorism: short of his departure, one way or another, nothing probably will. So what would be the "further steps"? One possibility would be variations on the same military actions considered the last time around and discarded, presumably for good reasons: endanger the lives of innocent people; hitting the wrong target; inflaming Arab opinion; further alienating European allies. A second possibility would be "further steps" that the president wisely wouldn't want to talk about.

Nobody wants to appear indifferent to the scourge of terrorism. But there are cruel limits on what can be done about it and strict limits, as well, on what can be said about the things that you can do. This argues against public threats that may prove empty and public promises that cannot be fulfilled. It argues for putting up -- or shutting up.