After nearly a year of high-pitched Middle East diplomacy, the Reagan administration has decided, in effect, to tone down its efforts and let the Lebanese, Saudis, and others carry on for a while.
The name of the American game is to bolster Lebanon, keep everyone talking, and then move toward more high-level US diplomacy - including, possibly, a United States-Syrian foreign ministers meeting here or another George Shultz visit to the Middle East - only when the time seems right. The hope of some observers that Syria might quickly withdraw from Lebanon has collapsed.
State Department officials say that what is called for is patience. But they recognize that the patience of Israel is limited and that recent attacks on Israelis stationed in Lebanon could provoke a major response against Syria. The officials say that a hopeful sign is an intense Syrian interest in a continuing dialogue with the United States.
The State Department is convinced that with time, the Syrians will recognize that it is in their interest to agree to a withdrawal that would bring a pullout of Israeli forces now situated within 15 to 20 miles of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
''I think optimism . . . is warranted,'' said Morris Draper, special US envoy for Lebanon negotiations in an ABC News interview Sunday. ''But I think we have to be patient for results. It's a very sticky period right now.''
Mr. Draper listed the factors working against Syria's holdout position:
* Israeli forces in a position to drive into northern Syria should a major confrontation break out.
* Widespread Arab support for Lebanon's right to make the kind of decisions it did when it reached an agreement with Israel.
* A strong consensus within Lebanon itself and in its parliament in favor of the Lebanon-Israel agreement and the withdrawal of both Syrian and Israeli troops.
The counterargument is made by some that Syria may look at Lebanon as an opportunity to drain Israel's resources, both economic and human. The continuing Israeli occupation, and Israeli casualties, have generated intense debate within Israel. A member of Syria's minority Islamic Alawite sect, President Hafez al-Assad has only a narrow base of power. Playing the role of a strong, ultranationalist leader resisting the Israeli threat may make for good domestic politics as far as Assad is concerned. And finally, his Soviet backers may want him to stay put in Lebanon.