International peacekeeping can be a hazardous undertaking. The United States, Britain, France, and Italy are finding this out as their troops begin to feel the brunt of growing civil strife in Lebanon. The US at this writing has lost two marines and the French four soldiers. Of course these losses are painful, but this is no time to falter in the multinational effort to try to help Lebanon. The peace-keeping forces are critical. Withdrawal or reduction of them would totally undermine the confidence of what is still a weak central Lebanese government and heighten the danger of all-out civil war.
President Reagan does have a problem, however. Under the War Powers Act of 1973, US troops must be withdrawn within 90 days unless Congress approves extending their stay. Mr. Reagan understandably is reluctant to invoke this provision of the act. Presumably he does not want to tie his hands by throwing the issue to Congress, with all the domestic pressures this would generate. But, unless the situation in Lebanon soon improves, he must be prepared to take this step.
Indeed, it could prove a help in the long run. There is no question that US troops are involved in a hostile situation and, if the President is to manage this latest Mideast crisis effectively, he will need congressional cooperation. It need not be assumed that such cooperation would be withheld. Influential Republican and Democratic lawmakers are ready to back a continuing US military presence in Lebanon. If Mr. Reagan goes to bat for his policy, he is likely to get the support he seeks. Also, it must be decided whether the US marine force is to remain defensive - or be allowed some limited offensive operations. While the latter has obvious dangers, this has to be measured against the risk of declining morale if the marines become sitting ducks in the face of more shelling.
The immediate US objective in Lebanon is to ensure a coordination of forces as the Israelis vacate positions in the Shouf mountains. US special envoy Robert McFarlane has worked quietly to persuade Israel to delay the withdrawal and to prevent further civil fighting. The concern is that the reconstructed Lebanese Army, as it replaces the Israeli forces, will not be strong enough to contain the strife between Maronite and Druze militia in the Shouf hills. While the Lebanese Army is said to be shaping up well, some observers believe these reports are inflated. Muslim militia attacks on US marine positions may in fact be partly designed to show just how weak the Lebanese Army is.
The problem is not primarily a military one, however. It is political in nature. Lebanon appears to be disintegrating - not only because Syrian troops and therefore Israeli forces refuse to withdraw, but because the whole fragile balance of power among the country's many factions has been upset. There needs to be a reconciliation among the communities - Christian Maronites, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze. What the Muslim factions seek - and legitimately so - is a greater share of power in the Lebanese political system. President Gemayel is prepared to reapportion power, but extremists within his own Phalange party are frustrating this goal. Hence the factional fighting.
Obviously outside multinational peace-keeping forces cannot solve Lebanon's political dilemma. They can help create the conditions for talks. But it is up to the Lebanese to curb their bitter hatreds and get together in the interests of national unity. If the Lebanese do not begin to show progress toward an accommodation, it is a question how long American public opinion in particular will let US troops remain in Lebanon to be caught in further political and military crossfire.