Withdrawal of the US Marines from Beirut to ships offshore is the right move at this time. But the concomitant presidential decision to use US ships and planes to shell Muslim positions that fire into Beirut seems to be misguided and probably counterproductive. It should be reversed. The US no longer appears to have any significant role to play in Lebanon. There is no peace left to keep, no effective central government to protect. The situation now has regressed to a state of virtual civil war in a land that has seen centuries of such bitter factionalism.
In these circumstances President Reagan took the wise step of removing the Marines from their exposed position near the Beirut airport to ships offshore. Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher promptly showed her agreement with this judgment by similarly removing British peacekeeping forces.
Withdrawal of the US Marines should progress as speedily as possible. Early estimates are that it might take three to four weeks: That would be too long. The Marines require more protection now.
Keeping the Marines in ships offshore for the time being is also appropriate, as they would be available if required to evacuate the estimated 1,000 American civilians still in Beirut should a further deterioration of the situation there make such a step necessary.
At the same time, it is prudent for the US to take immediate defensive measures to protect the ships onto which the Marines are being transferred from attack by missiles or suicide planes. For one thing, ships should be stationed at some distance from the coast.
The Lebanese government, never more than fragile, now lies in ruins that parallel those of Beirut itself. The Cabinet has resigned. The Army has substantially disintegrated. In the face of overwhelming military and political opposition, President Amin Gemayel appears to have an impossible task in trying to form an effective new government.
When Beirut and Lebanon settle down, the government that ultimately emerges almost surely will have to reflect the political reality of a Muslim majority, with a diminished role for the Maronite Christian minority. This government will be heavily influenced by the Syrian backers of today's forces, and perhaps to some extent by Syria's Soviet suppliers.
Every American shell or bomb that falls on Muslim positions from here on will increase the difficulty the US government will have in building an effective working relationship with the future Muslim-oriented government. For that reason alone, the shelling should cease.
Further, continued American firing does not help US relations with other Muslim Arab nations of the Middle East.
However, should disorder worsen in Beirut, shelling might become militarily necessary to permit the withdrawal of Marines from the ground, or to facilitate evacuation of other Americans in Lebanon, should that become essential.