US, France in step on Lebanon

Despite some misgivings, France is standing strong alongside the United States in Lebanon. At time of writing, there had been no official comment on the American raid against Syrian emplacements. That itself was significant. Unlike Italy, France is not considering withdrawing its soldiers from Beirut. Unlike Britain, there have been no angry parliamentary demands here for such a pullout from the multinational peacekeeping force.

Privately, the French plead for more nuanced American diplomacy in the Middle East; more talking with the PLO, the Syrians, and the Soviets; less cooperation with the Israelis.

But the French share overall American goals in Lebanon. And as their bombing of Shia barracks two weeks ago showed, they agree that force is sometimes needed in Lebanon to teach lessons.

''We have a large convergence of views with the Americans,'' a French diplomat explained. ''Sometimes, might is the only message heard in the Middle East. But it must be used skillfully, combined with negotiations.''

Specifically, the French feel that US military pressure might hurt the Syrians just enough to encourage them to enter into serious negotiations.

They see Syria as weakened by the serious illness of its leader Hafez al-Assad, who is described here as blind and unable to walk. Below President Assad, they say, a power struggle is being acted out. While this makes Syria unstable, the French think it also makes Syria susceptible to pressure. But, it is asked here, will the Reagan administration be able to take advantage of this opening? In particular, the French worry that the Americans are risking a wider escalation of the conflict without any real intention of dealing with Damascus. Their fears center on the May 17 Israeli-Lebanese pact.

''A piece of incredible naivete,'' a top official says. ''By refusing to deal with the Syrians, it let them block everything and increase their power throughout the region.''

For any hope of peace in Lebanon, French officials say that the pact must be renegotiated to satisfy Syria. So they were upset with the result of the visits last week to Washington of Israeli Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.

They feel America sided too openly with Israel by increasing military cooperation with the Jewish state - while refusing to consider a renegotiation of the May 17 pact.

Both Paris and Washington say all foreign forces must leave Lebanon. But instead of the simultaneous withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops that the Americans favor, the French believe the Israelis must leave first. The Israelis are illegal invaders, they explain, while the Syrians were invited in to help end a civil war.

More broadly, the French see no alternative but to give Syria a primary role in Lebanon.

''We don't think the Syrians want physical control of the country,'' an official explains. ''But they want a type of tutelage of Lebanon and we have no choice but to give that to them.''

The best way to moderate this tutelage is to bring the Soviets into the peacemaking process, the French say. Such a proposal draws immediate American anger. But the French lament the tendency in Washington to assess every regional conflict in global, East-West terms.

''The Soviet Union plays a moderating role on Syria,'' a top French official asserts. ''The Soviets know they cannot let Damascus be too destructive because that would foreclose any hope of them playing a role one day with the moderate Arabs in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.''

Similarly, the French champion Yasser Arafat as a moderate leader of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). While the US seems to be willing to let him disappear from the scene, the French want him to be saved and are ready to evacuate him from Tripoli if necessary.

All these differences on the Middle East, however, are tempered by large areas of agreement between Washington and Paris over defense and foreign policy. US Secretary of Defense Caspar Wein-berger recently completed three days of consultations here, and American and French officials insist the two sides agreed on most issues.

The Americans were pleased by French support for a tough approach to arms control talks with the Soviets. They were also pleased to find the French more willing than at any other time since de Gaulle broke with NATO to discuss the joint defense of Western Europe.

In addition, France's overall policy goals in Lebanon remain the same as those of the US: to rid the country of foreign forces and to establish the legitimacy of the Gemayel government. France's methods, too, resemble America's, including a mixture of power and persuasion.

So, despite the considerable French mistrust of American maneuvers in the region, the two countries are working remarkably well together.

''We have our differences, but in general we are working in concert in Lebanon,'' a French official said.

''Yes, there are some differences of approach,'' an American diplomat here added. ''But there is more solidarity than we might have expected from the French.'' Monitor contributor Alexander MacLeod reports from London:

Britain is reconsidering its role in the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon and is likely soon to withdraw the 140 troops committed to it.

The rethink has been forced on the government by adverse reaction in the House of Commons to President Reagan's decision to order US air attacks on Syrian positions in Lebanon.

There was uproar in the Commons as a Foreign Office minister tried to defend British support for Mr. Reagan. Some of the sharpest criticism came from backbenchers of the ruling Conservative Party. They insisted that the basis for Britain remaining in the peace force had been destroyed by Reagan's policies.

Soon afterward, a British Foreign Office minister was recalled to London from a tour of Gulf states. He was ordered to begin urgent consultations with the US, France, and Italy, the other contributors to the multinational force. This week's NATO meetings in Brussels are likely to be the venue.

In London it is thought that a decision to withdraw would very likely be made to coincide with modifications of other countries' commitment to the force.

The Commons storm broke as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in Athens for the summit meeting of the European Community. She returned to London with the future of the British element in the peace force high on her agenda.

Mrs. Thatcher was shaken by the virulence of anti-American criticism in the House of Commons. Some Tory members of Parliament argued that unilateral British withdrawal from the force would be justified if President Reagan refused to modify US policy in Lebanon.

A leading Tory backbencher said Mrs. Thatcher should make a direct appeal to Mr. Reagan about the present direction of what he called ''warlike US actions.''

There is a strong feeling in London that the Reagan White House failed to consult fully with Britain before ordering the air attacks. London was merely notified a few hours before the attacks began.

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