President Reagan returns home from his New Year's break to face a growing consensus against his keeping the marines in Lebanon. The White House acknowledges it has no ready alternative solution. But it has been in no-win situations before.
Now might be the time for Mr. Reagan to reach for a Middle East equivalent to his commissions on social security, the MX missile, and Central America - a bipartisan Middle East review that will provide a new sweeping analysis for the region, a basis for political compromise, and a cover for an immediate American marine exodus.
The bipartisan shell of support for the mission is cracking on both sides of the aisle. House Democrats meet this morning to reconsider the 18-month lease for the marine commitment, agreed to in September. House Republican leader Robert Michel of Illinois is saying the President's grace period for the marines - until after next fall's election - is too long.
In a reversal, Democratic presidential frontrunner Walter Mondale now calls for a pullout within 45 days.
The two reports on the Oct. 23 truck-bomb attack on the marine station in Beirut, by congressional and Pentagon committees, have directly criticized Reagan administration policy. Continuing to emphasize military options despite deteriorating security conditions can only invite more tragedy, they warn.
Whatever else might be said of Jesse Jackson's trip to Syria, much of it critical of Mr. Jackson's wisdom and motives, the invitation by Syria and his acceptance can also be read as a further troubling of the American domestic context for Reagan's deployment of the marines. Mr. Jackson might have been meddling, taking advantage of media coverage of his mission ostensibly to discuss the release of the captured US pilot, enhancing his standing with blacks (the pilot is a black), and making a gesture to the Arab side in the Middle East. At this writing, the results of Mr. Jackson's mission to Syria and meeting with President Assad are not known. No doubt the Syrians must have enjoyed gaining direct access, through Mr. Jackson, to the American public. This said, we had urged earlier that someone of the stature of Vice-President Bush head to Syria to establish a sensible dialogue with Damascus. It's hard to believe that Washington wants a confrontation with Syria that leaves openings for junkets like Jackson's.
The longer the marines stay in Lebanon, the more they become hostage - to the media as well as to violence. Nightly pictures of the deepening bunkers, ditches , and tank barriers suggest a siege psychology as disturbing as new reports of Beirut terrorist explosions.
As it is, even Mr. Reagan's most determined supporters are hard put to defend the marine presence. Virginia's Senator Warner, for example, falls back on the need to support the President's initiative because it is the President's, not because he can explain how it will work. Conservatives increasingly tell the President to cut his losses with the marines and coordinate some other plan with the other ''peacekeeper'' forces. The reconciliation process, which the marines were meant to support, appears to be going nowhere, participants say.
With the Iranian hostage crisis, President Carter's White House was tantalized for months, until April of 1980, with the prospects for secret negotiations with Teheran. When that failed, they tried the rescue mission. After that, they were resigned to waiting for some other opening - which came in the form of a release gift to the newly sworn-in Republican President.
Carter's early public support on the hostages faded. As Richard Neustadt, Harvard White House analyst, puts it: ''Rally-around-the-flag is not a long-range proposition. Except for a great war, it does not last from November to November.''
If outsiders can see that either a sense of improvement in Lebanon or the removal of the marines to safety is absolutely critical to Mr. Reagan politically, so can the White House. Reagan's reelection prospects are tracked to the American economy, not to mediating or militarily imposing a truce among Lebanon's embittered rivals.
For the White House to hold the line on the marines, whose mission has been turned upside down from peacekeeping to side-taking, deepens misgivings at home. It can only hasten the shift from bipartisan concensus in favor of the Reagan initiative to bipartisanship against.