Presidential leadership has to have credibility. Especially in times of world crisis and tension, the President has to be able - and willing - to rise above purely domestic political considerations and display the courage and vision of true statesmanship. Such statesmanship is urgently called for now as Israel tragically tightens its stranglehold on west Beirut in its defiance of world opinion.
Is President Reagan really getting sterner with Israel - as the White House would like the news media to report? Is there substance behind the tougher rhetoric of recent days?
It is all too apparent that Mr. Reagan has not yet established credibility in the eyes of Prime Minister Menachem Begin or of the Arab leaders who look to the United States to influence Israeli actions. Israel has decided it can defy the President. One, because Mr. Reagan from the outset never impressed on the Israeli leader that a lunge into Lebanon would be opposed by the United States with strong action as well as words. The limp US warning was simply not credible.
Secondly, the much-publicized diplomatic meeting in the White House the other day proved ineffective. Much was made in the media of Mr. Reagan's stern countenance when he met with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Photographers were brought in to record the glacial stare and newspapers around the country carried the picture. But the President's words immediately following the session - calling on both sides to refrain from violence - belied any serious rebuke to Israel, as did reports that the Israelis found the session less difficult than they expected. It may be asked whether such staged atmospherics are the way to establish credibility.
Past experience shows that it does no good to issue general, vague warnings to Israel. US diplomacy is awash with such statements. What is needed is specific action, a clear, unequivocal warning to take concrete steps if Israel persists in its audacious course, and to follow through. Is it unreasonable to tell the Israelis, for instance, that if they assault west Beirut the President will report to the Congress that Israel is in violation of US laws governing the use of American-supplied arms, an act which would require cutting off that supply? Looking at the human suffering of thousands of children and other innocent bystanders in Beirut - and the high diplomatic, political, and economic cost to the United States of Israel's invasion - it is inconceivable that the majority of the American people would not regard such a presidential move justified.
Surely Mr. Reagan will not lose political capital at home by putting the US national interest first. No one can accuse him of an anti-Israeli bias when he has bent over backwards to reassure Israel of American friendship and support, and backed this up with generous aid. Even if he exerts the firmness with Mr. Begin warranted now, this can only be in Israel's own long-range interests. Little will emerge from the rubble of Beirut but the recording of history that, whatever political benefit some Lebanese may have gained from the Israeli invasion, Jews swept over and shattered an independent, lawfully constituted Arab land. That is a burdensome legacy.
If President Reagan wants peace in the Middle East, his leadership must measure up to the demands of peace.