In over our heads in Lebanon

Washington seems to be misreading the Lebanese situation. Last fall it unaccountably expected the foreign forces to be out by Christmas. This year it is looking to 5,000 Italians, French, and Americans to consolidate the Gemayel regime. Both aspirations ignore Lebanese reality.

The nation of Lebanon arose toward the end of World War II out of a delicate inter-sectarian compact fostered by the French. Lebanon was and is a communalist house of cards, precariously constructed by France and the United Kingdom. The Lebanese acquired a flag, an athem, and a government; they never acquired a national consciousness.

Over time, the several autonomous communities were supposed to blend together , but the ancient legacy of communalism was too strong. Through the Phalange party, the Maronite (Catholic) leadership clung to the positions of power, even as the National Charter, the constitutional basis for their rule, steadily lost demographic and political relevance.

The Phalange nursed the delusion that once all ''foreigners'' - Palestinians and Syrians - had been expelled, Lebanon would return to normal. In 1982 it enlisted its ally, Israel, in this endeavor. Syria was battered, the PLO was routed, and the Phalangist set up posts in parts of Lebanon where they had never been before. The whole non-Maronite complex of Shia, Druze, Orthodox, and Sunnis was enraged, and the stage was set for renewal of the civil war as soon as the Israeli forces pulled back.

In the tradition of mountaineers the world around, the Lebanese are formidable warriors. Left to their own devices, they could eventually hack out a bloody consensus, but this approach is blocked by geography. Lebanon has lived for twenty centuries in the shadow of strong neighbors. Before, they were Turks, Egyptians, and Europeans. Now they are Syrians and Israelis -- backed by the USSR and the US. These outsiders have consistently influenced the course of Lebanese politics.

In 1958 Lebanon elected a Nasserist president. (The US Marine presence was irrelevant.) Later, when Sadat turned Egyptian attentions inward, Syrian influence rose. Lebanese presidents Franjie and Sarkis were both acceptable to Damascus.

In 1982, under the muzzles of Israeli guns, Lebanon elected a Phalangist president - first Bechir Gemayel, then his brother Amin after Bechir was assassinated. This election was an aberration. The Begin-Shamir-Sharon group and their Phalangist allies found out too late that Israel is devoid of the material and ideological resources to control Lebanon.

But now we see the Israeli error compounded by the US. The original purpose of sending international forces was laudable, and possibly realistic, but now those forces are being drawn into the defense of Gemayel's minority-based regime , even as its Israeli sponsors move to cut their losses from a policy disaster they still refuse to admit.

What impels Washington on this dangerous course? Compulsion to bail Israel out? Mindless antipathy to any faction that accepts Soviet support? Visceral affiliation to the status quo?

Whatever the rationale, it is defective. The armed forces of the United States are for the defense of the US and its allies, for the suppression of their enemies, and for participation in international peace keeping forces when a consensus for peace obtains. That consensus can be local as in Lebanon in 1958 , or international as against the Katangan effort to secede from Zaire.

No such consensus of either type exists in Lebanon. When there is no peace to keep, the international forces risk being drawn into the untenable role of policemen, who have to shoot at both sides, or - as seems to be the fate of the marines in Lebanon - drawn into the battle as participants, and on the wrong side to boot.

No non-Arab agency can solve the Lebanese problem. The marines should be withdrawn.

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