The American people cannot but be concerned about President Reagan's decision ''in principle'' to send US troops to Lebanon to help evacuate PLO guerrillas. The dangers of introducing American soldiers into a highly volatile situation are all too obvious. The move is contemplated as the only way to prevent an Israeli onslaught on west Beirut, with all the untold human suffering that would add to the already tragic casualties of the war. This appears a reasonable short-term objective. But, if not carefully conceived, it could have unfortunate long-term consequences.
The basic question is whether such an operation would serve Israel's purpose or the long-range interests of the region, the United States, and the West. On the face of it, it could end up serving Israel's alone. With US Marines (and presumably French and other forces) escorting PLO guerrillas out of Lebanon, the United States would be perceived by many in the Arab world as cooperating with the Israeli objective of removing the Palestine Liberation Organization. Unless , that is, the Reagan administration used the occasion to open direct dialogue with the PLO and reaffirm United States recognition of Palestinian rights to self-determination.
Unfortunately, US policy has been marked by extreme passivity on this score. It is in fact the administration's unwillingness to give strong moral support to Palestinian aspirations and to confront Israel on its expansionist policies that emboldened the Begin government to invade Lebanon. The Israelis calculated they would meet with no firm US diplomatic opposition, and they were right.
From Israel's point of view, it has won a stunning victory. It has shattered the PLO and thereby solidified its hold on the West Bank. Those who think Mr. Begin may now be magnanimous toward the Palestinians should be aware that Israel has just dismissed another popularly elected mayor in the West Bank. The absorption of that occupied territory goes on and is likely to accelerate.
Is Washington colluding in this process? If not, does it wish to be seen colluding in it?
Mr. Reagan and his new secretary of state need urgently to formulate a Mideast policy aimed at a far-reaching, permanent peace. To all intents and purposes Israel has the upper hand and therefore may feel secure. There appears no one or anything to challenge its overwhelming power. But what of its security in the future? The PLO has been beaten, to be sure, but few believe that the Palestinian national movement will disappear into the clouds. The huge Palestinian diaspora is bound to reorganize, and it cannot be ruled out that a radicalized leadership will emerge which will then seek, perhaps through terrorist tactics, to undermine the more moderate Arab regimes. Such a development would clearly be detrimental to Western interests in the Middle East.
The US ought to be facing up to such possibilities now. It would be unwise in the extreme to send US Marines into Lebanon without thinking through the implications. Or without setting conditions that lay the ground for a wider peace. At the least Israel should be pressed to move forward on negotiations and give broader autonomy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Otherwise Americans would be risking their lives -- putting themselves in the position of being shot at by extremist PLO elements (even if the PLO agrees to the evacuation) - for uncertain gains.
Does Washington have the courage to set a firm price?