Lausanne, Switzerland — The old Lebanese political order died in all but name at a Swiss luxury hotel this week. Nattily garbed rival delegates talked past each other for nine days, then, in disarray, caught Mercedes limos for the Geneva airport. Back home, youngsters firing mortars, grenade launchers, and automatic rifles will presumably decide what comes next.
Even these children - constrained by a mix of geography and entangled alliances - may fail to force a workable new power balance any time soon. Yet fight, they will. The only open question is when the battle will begin in earnest. This may depend largely on Syria, Lebanon's neighbor, which has over 40 ,000 troops there.
In Lausanne, the Syrians failed - like the Americans they had chased from Beirut a few weeks earlier - to broker a new arrangement for political power-sharing and stability in Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether Syria will do better at enforcing the ''cease-fire and security plan'' for which the conference had to settle.
It remains to be seen, indeed, whether Syria will even try, or if it will instead concentrate on calibrating the war so as best to retain its own say in the new political order that eventually must follow.
Theoretically, formation of a ''national unity'' government back in Beirut could yet delay new fighting. But this, at best, was only a hope as the conference ended. It was left out of the final communique. One senior Lebanese official remarked: ''I don't think it will happen.''
In the West, only the French, whose troops are the only member of the multinational force left in Beirut, are likely to pay much attention to renewed bloodletting. Amin Gemayel, nominal Lebanese President, was in Paris Wednesday presumably asking the French to stay put.
Mr. Gemayel was the main loser at the talks. He may well prove among the first casualties of its failure, with his political demise coming at the hands of Syria and his Lebanese Druze and Shiite Muslim opponents. Or, quite conceivably, it could come on the impetus of his own Maronite Christian community.
A whole tangle of rivalries over Lebanon's future raged here. Maronite vied with Sunni, Shiite, and Druze. Young was pitted against old. Hill chieftain against city people. North against south. Rich against poor.
Lebanon, like other Mideast states, was the artificial creation of fading European empires after World War I. Formally independent in the early 1940s, the nation's political rules seemed one part feudalism, one part democracy, and one part the law of the jungle. Atop this lay an unwritten convenant that meted out political power among religious communities.
Maronites dominated - assured the presidency, and given a 6-5 edge over non-Maronites in other areas. A Sunni was automatically prime minister. A Druze was military chief of staff. A Shiite chaired parliament. And so on.
It worked for three decades until civil war erupted in 1975. Many Lebanese argue that the catalyst for the fighting was distinctly non-Lebanese: the Palestinian guerrilla movement that shifted to Lebanon after its 1970 civil war with Jordan. But whatever the spark, the war did ignite. And since 1975, it has ebbed and flowed, but never really ended. Outside powers, notably Israel and Syria, have intervened to keep any of the rival factions from utterly defeating the others.
Yet by the time Gemayel, eight rival Christian and Muslim overlords, and a Syrian ''observer'' convened last week, the Maronites had suffered a series of devastating defeats by a Druze-Shiite coalition.
Gemayel had seen almost all his nation's Army either routed or splintered on sectarian lines by Druze and Shiite fighters. Syria armed his opponents.
Then, before Lausanne, Syria put on the brakes, fearful that an outright Shiite-Druze victory might breed a potentially contagious Iranian-style fundamentalism next door. Syria far preferred a reshuffled Lebanese stability in which Syria would hold the trump cards. This strategy, Syria well knew, had failed at least once before - in 1976, when the Maronites were similarly, but only briefly, beholden to protectors from Damascus.
Yet now, there was reason to figure things might be different. The main reason was that the Maronites - indeed, almost all rival Lebanese communities - seemed to have nowhere else to turn for help. The Israelis, to whom Maronite leaders turned in breaking their 1976 understanding with Syria, had been burned by their 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel wanted out. Ditto, the Americans.
On paper, Lausanne should have succeeded. The beleaguered Gemayel and his principal Muslim foes had come very close to agreeing on a new power setup that would protect various Maronite prerogatives for the foreseeable future, yet award greatly enhanced political say to Muslims and Druze.
Yet ultimately, Lausanne proved the inability of verbal formulas to constrain a showdown between Lebanon's old order and whatever comes next. The Maronites - ironically, in the shape of their most pro-Syrian leader, former President Suleiman Franjieh - decided that even setbacks on the ground were not sufficient reason to bargain away decades of political privilege as a Christian minority amid a ''sea'' of Muslims.
Partly, this was an old-style Maronite impulse bred of past centuries in Lebanon's mountains. But also, the Maronite veto reflected an understanding that a more militant breed of Christian leadership was arising from the ranks of civil-war militias only nominally answerable to the old-style Maronite clan chiefs.
And partly, Franjieh's move seemed an effort to settle scores with rivals in the Maronite old guard - specifically with Phalangist Party leader Pierre Gemayel, Amin's father. A third Maronite veteran, former President Camille Chamoun, went along with Franjieh's veto. He, too, has scores to settle with the Gemayel clan.
''Fossils,'' scoffed the much younger Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. ''Beware the Ides of March!'' he added as a parting shot - as if to suggest that only when the old guard went the way of Caesar would the real political bargaining over Lebanon's future begin.
Jumblatt may not have meant his Shakespearean nugget literally. Yet other Lebanese delegates were predicting that the next round of fighting in Lebanon might prove an inter-Maronite one, as much as a Muslim-Christian showdown.
Indeed, most of the delegates' pre-departure chatter involved an eerie, obscenely academic swap of scenarios for future bloodletting. Some Muslim and Druze sources seemed to assume a fresh drive by their troops on traditional Maronite areas north of Beirut.
''More fighting is needed for political reform,'' remarked one non-Maronite delegate dryly. Others suspected this would have its limits - that either the Syrians or even Israel would intervene to head off too hefty an advance on the ground.
An easier, more likely, target seemed the vestiges of Gemayel's regular Army - in the hill town of Souk al Gharb and around the nearby presidential palace.
Then, the scenario went, a freshly humbled Maronite leadership - very possibly with a Chamoun or Franjieh destined for the presidency - would find itself back at another round of ''reconciliation'' bargaining. Then, if the Maronites still don't agree on a major shift in power to Muslims, ''another round of fighting.''
Wednesday morning, the Beau Rivage Hotel was all but empty of the Lebanese. Down a plush hallway strode Syrian Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, an invisibly energetic ''observer'' at the talks. He looked a bit like a baseball manager taking a final, lonely walk around the stadium where his boys had just dropped game seven of the World Series.
''Mr. Khaddam?'' I approached him politely. ''I'm an American reporter. . . .''
He smiled, then said not at all unkindly: ''I have nothing to say.''