Lebanon in perspective

The massacre of the Marines in Beirut has provoked serious questions about our course in Lebanon: What are our goals and their mission? Can they be fulfilled? How do they relate to US interests there and in the region?

The ''war powers'' debate several weeks ago should have explored these and related questions, but it did not. They should be clarified now lest Lebanon become another slippery slope or divert us from more vital concerns.

Responding to the Beirut tragedy, the President went all out. He called the independence of Lebanon a vital interest, key to stability in the entire Middle East and Gulf. The Marines (and multilateral force) are there, he said, to help maintain order until the Gemayel regime is able to do so throughout Lebanon on its own, to facilitate withdrawal of all foreign forces, to safeguard against Syrian-Soviet control, and to preserve US credibility.

That is far too much to expect from 1,600 Marines in a multilateral force of 5,000 under the conditions in Lebanon. A force of this size cannot even impose order; it requires acceptance by the various contending sects and factions. For that purpose it must be perceived as impartial.

For many Lebanese the regime of Gemayel, a Christian Phalangist, is not considered representative. Thus US support for Gemayel is seen by dissident factions as taking sides in the civil conflict. Hence the US forces become a target, and their response tends to implicate them more deeply in the conflict. Yet the Marines are to remain until the Lebanese factions work out a stable sharing of power and Syrian, Israeli, and remaining PLO forces are withdrawn.

The core difficulty lies deeper. Lebanon cannot be isolated from the broader Middle East crisis. A major underlying source of that broader instability continues to be the Arab-Israeli conflict - and especially the Palestinian issue. The current crisis in Lebanon stems as much from that source as from its internal feuding.

The United States needs to get its interests and role in Lebanon back into perspective. The vital US interest is in stability and peace in the broader Middle East and the Gulf. Lebanon, though an aspect of such stability, is not a vital or strategic interest in itself. And to make success there a symbol of our resolve would be a grave mistake that could distort our policy in the region and divert us from pursuing more vital concerns.

Clearly the US should not precipitously withdraw the Marines after the terrorist attack. At the least, it should await the results of the efforts to reconcile the various factions at Geneva.

But the US should recognize that its participation in the multilateral force can be counterproductive and could embroil us more deeply in the civil war if the cease-fire breaks down.

Thus the US, in consultation with its allies, should press for a reconstituted peacekeeping force composed mainly of disinterested or small states that the Lebanese factions will perceive as neutral. That would also leave the US freer to use its influence to foster compromise and reconciliation and to deal with Syria.

But the US should also urgently turn its attention and efforts to the underlying source of tension and instability in the Middle East - the unresolved issue of Palestinian rights in the occupied territories and the Golan Heights. In September 1982, the President made courageous proposals on the Palestinian issue. But the US, diverted by Lebanon, has not followed up. Meanwhile, Israel has stepped up its program for resettling the West Bank, seeking to create an irreversible fait accompli that will nullify UN Resolution 242. The President should revive and aggressively press his proposals, making clear that the Golan Heights - of interest to Syria - are also included.

The obstacles are obvious: Israel, Jordan and the PLO, Syria, and the Israeli lobby here. For any hope of success, the President would have to be ready to use the full US leverage on all concerned. The year before the 1984 election hardly seems a propitious time for such an effort.

Yet there are offsetting factors. In Israel, disillusion with the Lebanese adventure, concern about absorbing so many Arabs, and the economic crisis may make trading occupied territory for peace more attractive than earlier. With Arafat weakened and the PLO split, Hussein might be emboldened to try to head off Israeli absorption of the West Bank, with the support of the moderate Arab states, if the US did in fact stop further settlements. And the shock of the Marine tragedy will certainly strengthen the President's hand for a solution based on UN Resolution 242 if he makes clear how it will serve US interests in a stable Middle East as well as Israel's long-term security.

Several times recently, the President has alluded to his proposals for the Middle East. He just might confound the political pundits by converting those hints into a program of vigorous action.

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