Getting the US Marines out of Lebanon, or at least into safer positions, is no more a Middle East policy than was putting them there. The Marines were sent for short-range reasons: first, to cover for the Palestinian withdrawal, then as a gesture of US commitment to protect the Christian community from reprisals in the civil war after the Israelis withdrew from Beirut. They are there now ostensibly - along with British, French, and Italian troops - to shore up President Gemayel's militia until a reconciliation effort brings agreement among Lebanon's factions.
President Reagan put them there. He can take them out. But he should do more, beginning with review of his approach to Syria.
The administration has been floating the prospect of pulling the Marines to offshore positions, to points south of the Beirut airport, or into Israeli-protected territory. Allies in the 6,000-troop peacekeeping force are signaling they want out soon, too - or at least a major US diplomatic effort to supplant the current US tactic of intimidating Syria into withdrawal by threatening US-Israeli military liaison. They don't want to be dragged into war.
For the moment, the Marines could perform whatever symbolic role Mr. Reagan wants for them just as well from safer positions. Mr. Reagan always argued the United States should not get into a war it does not intend to win. Troops as political pawns never sat well with him or with the American public.
Diplomacy now should be tried. The Syrians have signaled for some time that they would prefer not to be driven to the Soviets for more and more aid. Many analysts argue that Syria, for all its merciless acts under President Assad, belongs to the West. Syria is part of Western civilization, they say. The Syrians say a dialogue would be welcome, starting with a visit by Mideast envoy Donald Rumsfeld. Some analysts argue Vice-President Bush should go to Syria - much as some argued Walter Mondale should have been dispatched to Tehran in 1979 within a week of the US Embassy hostage seizure. After all, that's the kind of mission vice-presidents are for.
There would be no loss of face, whatever the outcome. The administration has already displayed a stick, in its show of US-Israeli military fraternity.
Each escalated response to attacks on US marines, with militarily dubious air strikes on Syrian gun sites, ascribing to Syria blanket responsibility, with a Soviet bully brother backing Syria up, only takes the region closer to a big-power confrontation and drives Syria into the Soviet embrace.
Moderate Arabs could help, too. After all, they finessed Palestinian leader Arafat's latest exodus from Tripoli. Syria has good reason to build its way back into the Arab community's confidence.
Whatever the merits of closer US and Israeli ties, parading them now strikes even many of the administration's friends as shortsighted. They say the US policy in Lebanon has followed in the wake of Israeli actions - first Israel's invasion and then its pulldown to southern Lebanon. At this point, the past cannot be undone.
Now a broader Middle East effort is required. The US should press for Israeli and Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon; a UN, or other, peacekeeping replacement for the Marines; and a revised Lebanese political policy to admit Druze and Shiite groups to government power, as well as inviting moderate Arab participation.
Emphasis on the US-Israeli linkup and the threat of military escalation no doubt were intended to make negotiation look better.
Now's the time to play that card, beginning with talks with Syria. Bluff is dangerous as well as pointless if there's no intent to barter.