Syria and Mr. Reagan
As the American death toll in Lebanon continues to grow and the success of the Marines' mission - whether military or political - is nowhere in sight, disturbing questions are increasingly raised about Ronald Reagan's policy in the Middle East. Some criticize the President for being ''trigger happy'' and relying too heavily on military power.Skip to next paragraph
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But the Syrians are not the Americans. Those who rule in Damascus do not share the US liberal dogma that when guns are used it means diplomacy has failed. Military force is a traditional and much respected tool for settling disputes in the region. Those reluctant to employ power should stay away from the Middle East.
Nor can the President be fairly charged of recklessness in handling the Syrians. Once the Marines arrived in Lebanon they had to be protected against hostile attacks. There is little doubt that most of these attacks are, if not directly orchestrated by Damascus, at least organized with its knowledge, approval, and support. A great power like the United States cannot afford to give the impression that a small but assertive Soviet ally can push it around with impunity.
Similarly, I would not blame Mr. Reagan for putting too much emphasis on the East-West dimension of the Lebanese situation. The administration, on the whole, recognizes that deep divisions between Lebanese factions are not Moscow's invention. And officials in both the White House and the State Department realize that Syria has its own agenda and is not a Soviet puppet.
Syrian leadership in Damascus consists of tough and pragmatic men. They would probably never dare to challenge the US and Israel if they did not feel that the Soviet superpower was behind them. At this point - regardless of historical rights and wrongs - success for Damascus means a gain for the Kremlin and a loss for the US.
But while a lot of liberal criticism of the administration's performance in Lebanon is off the mark, there are indeed good reasons to worry. The President does not seem to know exactly what America is doing in Lebanon or what the consequences of US actions are. This kind of analytical blindness is frightening considering that the lives of American marines are on the line, that US credibility as a superpower is at stake, and that the risk of a direct military clash with the Soviet Union is growing every day.
Mr. Reagan declared that the US does not want a military confrontation with Syria. According to him, Syrian antiaircraft fire against US surveillance planes represented an unprovoked attack. If the President made this statement exclusively for public relations purposes it would still be appropriate to ask whom he thinks he is kidding. But White House aides insist that Mr. Reagan was truly appalled by the Syrian action. If that is so, we are really in trouble.
Just look at the facts. Here the administration is proceeding with practical steps to develop strategic cooperation with Israel. Against whom? President Assad does not have to be paranoid to assume that he is the most immediate target. And there is indeed a lot of talk among senior officials in Washington about using the Israelis to cut Syria down to size.