While war, siege, rumors, and negotiations in Lebanon dominate the headlines, the conflict there holds a historic opportunity for the United States - an opportunity to help a small nation rebuild its democracy.
The building blocks of this reconstruction will be those elements in Lebanon's past that have survived the trials of the years since 1975, when the country was thrown into turmoil. The mortar will be those lessons learned from the errors committed by the Lebanese themselves and by outsiders.
''Gains'' made since 1975 by the Palestine Liberation Organization under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, and by communists, socialists, and Nasserites in Lebanon, have now been firmly checked by the Israeli incursion. Today it is the US which is moving to center stage in the Middle East drama as the one nation well suited to help Lebanon regain its stability and natural role as a Western-oriented crossroads of varied political, economic, educational, and cultural interests in the Middle East.
Despite the aberrations of the past six years, and contrary to the current impression that war has brought total chaos, Lebanon does have underlying stability. Its economy is actually growing. Its surprising prosperity rests on a highly developed free enterprise system. In the past, this system was buttressed by a peaceful mixture of ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. In this nation of minorities, each group found that a ''modus vivendi'' shared by all made for a society that was both traditional and modern, and was rich, colorful, and creative. Its political success rested on a formula that assured representation for all its diverse groups.
This system broke down only when external ideological forces exercised undue influence on one or more of its components. Two notable examples were the disruptions caused by the Nasserites in 1958 and the Palestinians in 1975.
In rebuilding its democratic structure, Lebanon must take into account the possibility that strong external forces might again seek to destabilize the country one day. Guarantees to prevent such occurrences must be built into the new system. The US, with its central role in the Middle East, has an important stake in seeing this happen.
Rebuilding a viable Lebanese political structure will require a commitment to hard work, efficiency, honesty, mutual trust, and high ethical standards of leadership, statesmanship, and accountability. In post-PLO Lebanon there will be a pressing need for a government that is willing to lead, to take stands and to set the country back on the course of Western-type democracy. This backbone-stiffening will be as sharp a break with the past as was the destablization wrought by the country's radical leftist parties and their PLO allies in the mid-'70s, having failed to gain political power through the then-prevailing democratic electoral system.
The Lebanese government has made major errors in the past. It recognizes this; so do most Lebanese. The greatest error was the acceptance of the PLO's presence in the country and the acceptance - under duress - of agreements with the PLO, which the PLO has never honored or respected. These errors have contributed to the physical destruction of many parts of the country and the impotence of the Lebanese government.
Today, Lebanon looks to the US for support in declaring all agreements previously entered into with the PLO as null and void. Since the PLO has already broken these agreements, they have in effect nullified them anyway.
The US has spoken clearly and consistently during the current conflict in favor of the restoration of an independent, democratic, stable Lebanon, free of all outsiders. Virtually all Lebanese, Moslem, Christian, and Druze, and people across the political spectrum, are grateful for this supportive stand taken by the US. Maintaining this position will surely enhance US prestige in the region and reduce Soviet influence. It will also help to ensure the orderly transfer of power from President Sarkis to his successor, as well as the systematic withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from the country.
President Reagan's special ambassador, Philip Habib, has worked tirelessly to assist Lebanon in its quest to rebuild a democratic system embodying many of the values the American administration espouses: strong, but not overly big government, a free enterprise economic system, strong commitment to individual morality and spiritual values, belief in individual freedom, and an eagerness to work with all free nations to sustain ideals threatened by revolutionaries conspicuously allied with the USSR and its clients throughout the world. This is America's opportunity. Now is the time.