OBVIOUSLY, the United States government is going to have to do something about the continuing kidnappings in Lebanon. To figure out what can usefully be done, let us first assemble the known facts and then look at the background. As of this writing, 26 foreigners are being held somewhere in Lebanon for presumably political reasons. Of these, 8 are American and 6 are French. Here is the clue to where all this started and what much of it is about, though not all.
Back in 1983 French and American forces entered and took up positions along the coastal plain of Lebanon between Beirut and Israeli forces to the south. The French and American troops were there in the eyes of their own governments as ``peacekeeping'' forces. But in the process of trying to keep the peace they found themselves in combat with Syrian and with Shiite Muslim militia forces.
On Oct. 23, trucks manned by suicide drivers bombed both French and American barracks. The American fatalities numbered 241; the French lost 47.
On Nov. 29 the US announced an agreement for ``strategic cooperation'' with Israel.
On Dec. 4, 28 aircraft from US carriers patrolling offshore bombed Syrian military positions in the Lebanon range of mountains to the east of Beirut.
On Dec. 12, six trucks loaded with bombs attacked a series of targets in Kuwait. The main targets were the US and French Embassies. Five Kuwaiti employees of the US Embassy were killed. Other targets were the Kuwaiti airport, the power station, and a residential area largely inhabited by American diplomatic personnel.
The Kuwaiti authorities arrested, tried, and convicted 17 people in connection with those bombings in Kuwait. The 17 are still in jail in Kuwait. A frequent demand in connection with subsequent kidnappings is for the release of those 17.
The 17 were apparently associated with Islamic Jihad - which translates as the Islamic Holy War. The kidnappings in Lebanon are frequently believed to be by members of Islamic Jihad. The Shiites in Lebanon are known to be associated with the Shiite government of Iran.
On Dec. 13, the day after the bombings in Kuwait, the Iranian delegate at the United Nations said that there would be ``further retaliations'' if the US involvement in Lebanon continued.
On Dec. 14, the US battleship New Jersey opened fire, for the first time in the Lebanon war, on Syrian targets in the mountains above the US positions. After further indeterminate skirmishing, bombing, and shelling, President Reagan withdrew all US forces from Lebanon on Feb. 7, 1984. The French had already gone.
But left over from those days are the 17 Islamic Jihad people in jail in Kuwait and the 14 French and Americans being held in Lebanon. The ultimate price for the release of the 14 is very probably the release of the 17.
Now we have the further complication of the request by the US for the extradition from West Germany of Muhammad Ali Hamadi, a Lebanese, aged 22, arrested for complicity in the hijacking of a TWA airliner in June 1985 during which one US Navy diver was beaten savagely to death.
From the American and French points of view in general the 17 in jail in Kuwait and Muhammad Hamadi are plain terrorists who deserve the death penalty for crimes against humanity.
But from a Lebanese Muslim's point of view these people are soldiers fighting in the Muslim cause against the enemies of Islam in general and the Arabs in particular. Americans and French in Lebanon in 1983 were in fact helping the Israelis against the Shiites and other Muslims.
In warfare among supposedly civilized countries it is customary to exchange prisoners. In Lebanon, in 1983, in the middle of the events described above, Israel exchanged prisoners with the Arabs. On Nov. 24 Israel released 4,500 Arabs in return for six Israelis.
The US should probably withdraw all its official personnel from Lebanon and do its best to persuade all American citizens to leave with the embassy; this would avert more hostage taking. It will then have to think in terms of a prisoner exchange. There is no other rational way to obtain release of the hostages.
This is a case where armies and battleships and bombers are useless.