Washington's tangle in Lebanon

Although it has not yet constructed an overall policy toward the Middle East, the Reagan administration has made the best of a bad situation by reacting credibly to the Lebanese crisis within a framework of priorities designed by its predecessors. The irony is that in the absence of a fundamental change in the established American approach to the Middle East, Washington has had to seek an end to the current Syrian-Israeli controversy in order to preserve the very conditions that gave rise to it. Thus, American diplomacy remains doggedly geared to restoring the Syrian-Israeli balance that more or less prevailed in Lebanon until last April.

Recent events offer little hope that such a balance will neutralize Lebanon's now undeniable potential as a catalyst for a major Middle East upheaval. It was , after all, a relatively junior protagonist in that country's extended political network -- Israel's Phalangist ally -- that sparked the present level of tension by moving on the strategic city of Zahle. Whatever machinations may have preceded that event, the danger of Syria and Israel being thrust into an unwanted confrontation by unilateral actions of their respective Palestinian and Christian allies has been underscored.

From an expanded perspective, Washington's penchant for Israeli and Syrian spheres of influence in Lebanon looks more than ever like an idea that has outlived any long-term usefulness. This, of course, was not always so.

In the summer of 1976, with Lebanon gripped by a civil war that not only threatened regional disruption but also the destruction of Washington's efforts to promote the growth of an Arab-Israeli peace incrementally by way of Egypt, American diplomacy produced a truly astounding political menagea-trois: a Syrian-Israeli-American partnership to control events in Lebanon. Based on a geographical division that precluded Syria from South Lebanon while implying a green light for Israeli intervention in the same area, the tacit agreement allowed Damascus to force a semblance of order throughout the rest of the country.

Each partner derived benefits from the arrangement. Syria asserted its claim to dominant influence in Lebanese affairs and prevented the possible emergence of a recalcitrant (rightist or leftist) regime in Beirut. Israel saw Palestinian forces checked by Syrian firepower, was able to devote attention to Egypt, and proceeded to consolidate its own influence in South Lebanon. The United States was able to concentrate its diplomatic energies on promoting pacific relations between Israel and Egypt.

However, none of this reduced the fundamental antagonism between Syria and Israel. Despite its division into spheres of influence, Lebanon provided only another, albeit somewhat subdued, arena in which the two played out their mutual hostility. Thus, as the Egyptian-Israeli-American peace drive furthered Syria's regional isolation in the late 1970s, Damascus renewed and strengthened its ties to the Palestinian movement. Israel simultaneously developed an extensive alliance with Christian forces throughout Lebanon.

The jockeying for local advantage did not dissuade Washington from encouraging the presence of both countries in Lebanon. Israel continued to receive heavy financial subsidies and remained virtually exempted from embarrassing questions concerning the propriety under American law of its use and transfer of US-supplied arms in the Lebanese theater. Syria also received significant levels of foreign aid as well as vital American support for multilateral international loans.

A cynical interpretation of US policy since 1976 is that it has actively sought to create and perpetuate a state of "controlled tension" in Lebanon in order to distract Arab opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, and to its possible extension to Jordan. A more charitable view holds that the intricacies of the Lebanese situation, together with Washington's preoccupation with Egyptian-Israeli relations, have given policymakers little room or incentive to devise a more far-reaching approach.

In either case, it is clear that American faith in "stabilizing" spheres of Syrian and Israeli influence stemmed in the first instance from Washington's commitment to a step-by- step effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The import of the current crisis is that the promotion of spheres of influence will at best leave Lebanon, whether by design or accident, in the thrall of "controlled tensions" that are apt to pass suddenly beyond the bounds of restraint. Should that possibility be realized, there would be a real chance of the fragile existing structure of partial peace in the Middle East becoming unravelled.

While it is to be hoped that present efforts to defuse the situation in Lebanon will succeed, the Reagan administration would do well to ponder recent lessons. The intimate connection between potential instability in Lebanon and the Palestine issue casts grave doubt on the wisdom of clinging to an incrementalist approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Serious consideration should not be given to a more comprehensive strategy that will openly seek to enlist all major regional actors, including the PLO, in an ongoing exchange over the specific issues of territorial control, the ultimate status of the Palestian people, and Israel's right to a secure existence

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