The most critical issue facing Lebanon is not whether or when the Israeli, Syrian, and other foreign armies will be withdrawn. Nor is it whether the cease-fire among the warring parties can be secured. The more acute as well as chronic problem concerns the ability of the Lebanese, if left alone, to rule themselves.
How should the United States and its Marines respond to Lebanon's internal conflict? The conflict currently centers on the question of what comes first - a strong centralized Lebanon or the safeguarding of communal autonomies and rights. To President Amin Gemayel and his American and Israeli supporters, it appears that a strong Maronite-dominated Lebanon should be able to protect all of Lebanon's composite parts. To many others the creation of a new balance of power among the diverse communities must come first. Their slogan is ''entente before security.''
The US, whose own Constitution is heavily endowed with institutions and procedures for ''checks and balances,'' and which has managed effectively to balance minority, local, state, and federal rights, can offer Lebanon relevant experience and expert advice that could greatly enhance the opportunity for peace in Lebanon - not so much by dwelling on the external forces, Israel and Syria, or a military intervention, but by imploring, prodding, and bringing the local forces, Gemayel and his opponents, to a conference table at which basic issues for a constitutionally and democratically governed Lebanon will be discussed, compromised, and settled. Nothing will address Lebanon's armed sectarianism more effectively than a program for elective process, local autonomy, a carefully balanced government, and constitutional revision and reform.
Lebanon has been independent only since the end of World War II, and its problems with self-government are typical of many new countries - in which national governments seek to impose themselves upon a divided people previously committed to local, tribal, or other subnational communities.
Lebanon's identity as a nation-state has never crystallized. A land bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa, this narrow strip along the eastern Mediterranean has been conquered and settled by many nations, races, and religions.
Lebanon's population of some 3 million people consists of six major communities, divided almost equally between Christians and Muslims. The Christian Maronites are the largest in number and have had a long historical affiliation with the Western culture and language. The Sunnis are smaller in number and until recently claimed to be the country's largest Muslim community. The Shiites, Muslim fundamentalists whose number now probably equals that of the Sunnis, share the faith of the ruling regimes in Iran and Syria. The Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic, both Christian communities, differ from the Maronites, not only in principles of belief and worship, but also in their heavier political orientation toward the Arab Middle East rather than Christian Europe. Finally, there are the Druzes, originally a splinter group off the Ismaili branch of Islam, who developed their own religio-political entity separate from both Muslims and Christians and currently constitute a major challenge to the authority of the Lebanese government under President Gemayel, a Maronite Christian.
While each of Lebanon's communities is distinct, only two of these, the Maronites and the Druzes, view themselves also as separate ethno-political or national entities. In competition for nearly a millennium, the fortunes of these communities have changed over time. Made independent upon France's departure in 1946, Lebanon's government and newly adopted constitution reflected the country's precarious communal and political balance. Law and tradition require that the nation's president be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the president of the house of deputies a Shiite Muslim. A Druze has traditionally been appointed minister of defense.
The arrival of Palestinian refugees, beginning with Israel's creation in 1948 and concluding with the 1970 expulsion of the PLO from Jordan, changed the balance in Lebanon's population and political power. It was this disruption that produced the 1976 entry of Syrian forces into Lebanon as well as invasion of the PLO's Lebanese strongholds by Israel last year.
With the departure of most of the PLO forces from Lebanon, and the signing of a peace agreement between the Lebanese and Israelis, the restoration of an independent Lebanon seemed possible. But in mid-1983 a dissident coalition in which the Druzes joined forces with the Syrians, some of the Lebanese Muslims and the remaining Palestinians raised an open challenge to the newly emerging Lebanon under Maronite leadership.
Not only has Druze leader Walid Jumblatt denounced the Lebanese government's peace with Israel and created a National Salvation Front against the Gemayel government, but he ordered armed opposition to government efforts to assert its authority over the Lebanon Druzes' Shouf stronghold. Not all Druzes, or Muslims, approve of Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party's close associations with the Syrians and their Soviet overlords. But many share the belief that the political as well as physical survival of Lebanon's minorities is threatened by the Christian Phalangist militias that support Gemayel and that took part in the previous massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shattila. Others, who point to the growth in Muslim numbers, see this as an opportune time to reduce Christian dominance and return political power to Muslims and Druzes. Since the US, Israel , and the Western world support Gemayel and his Christian-based government, what is left for Jumblatt to do but join forces with the Syrians and the Soviet bloc? the Druzes ask.
In May Jumblatt and the Druze leadership submitted their demands to the Lebanese government. To increase communal power within the Lebanese republic they urged the creation of a senate, in addition to the existing Chamber of Deputies, in which each of Lebanon's six major communities - Maronite Christians , Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Druzes - would be represented by an equal number of delegates. Also demanded was a guarantee of 15 percent of all cadet spaces in Lebanon's military academy to Druze candidates.
To many spectators the prospects for Lebanese peace appear dim, but to those who believe in democracy and self-determination the maintenance and preservation of Lebanon are important goals on the road toward a less sectarian and volatile Middle East.
America has an opportunity at hand to press for a Lebanese communal dialogue and settlement.