Why is US in Lebanon?

The Reagan administration has devised a unique way to celebrate the holidays. Rather than concentrate on the Star of Bethlehem, it has been producing a daily fireworks display a few miles north in Lebanon.

In Tripoli, Israel's gunboats bombarded Yasser Arafat and his 4,000 bedraggled colleagues for days while they were under attack by the Syrians. A few miles to the south our Sixth Fleet is still bombarding the Syrians who were helping the Israelis fight Arafat. I suspect that is an accurate foreshadowing of the "strategic coordination" we will achieve by our new alliance with Israel.

No doubt we have provided the naval shells with which the Israelis smashed up warehouses and shops and dwellings in Tripoli and jeopardized any poor human beings -- Palestinian or Lebanese -- unfortunate enough to be in the way. But there are few in Washington who can persuasively explain just why Israel was engaging in this operation -- other than from hatred of Arafat or pique at the UN for arranging his evacuation.

If Israel's naval activities in Tripoli are hard to understand, our own naval shelling a few miles farther south seems even less rational. We must, the administration says, systematically fly reconnaissance sorties over Syrian gun positions to protect our marines at the Beirut airport. But we could just as well use satellite photography to provide the needed intelligence without risking our naval pilots. So it is hard to avoid concluding that those overflights are deliberately provocative -- designed to incite Syrian antiaircraft fire that will justify our using the formidable guns of the Sixth Fleet to kill Syrian soldiers. Few seem concerned at the thought that those big naval guns are far from surgical weapons, and that they necessarily slaughter not merely Syria's young men but any unhappy Druzes, Shiites, or even Maronite Christians foolish enough to live near the targets.

What then is our Lebanese exercise all about? The administration's tactical objective, we are told, is to try to frighten the Syrian government into withdrawing its forces from Lebanon, where they have been since 1976. But that implies a bizarre misconception of the Syrian temperament and strategic posture. Who can possibly believe that the tough-minded leaders in Damascus, assured as they are of support by the Soviet Union against any American invasion, are going to be put off by out killing a few of their soldiers?

All we are achieving by this bullying tactic is to diminish our reputation as a humane and sensible nation. We are certainly doing nothing to improve the lot of our beleaguered marines, whose lives are daily at risk in their airport trap.

Christmas is a traditional time for nursery rhymes, and I cannot help recalling a jingle that seems apt today:

Oh, the brave old Duke of York He had ten thousand men; He marched them up to the top of the hill, And he marched them down again.m

We should pay heed to the old Duke's experience. Although he was not at the time regarded as very bright, there are things to be said in his favor. He had a clear objective in marching his men up the hill. When he reached the top he had sense enough to recognize that his situation was untenable and that he could not achieve his purpose, so he promptly marched them down. When he reached the bottom he at least knew where he had been and why he had gone there.

It is too bad the old Duke is not available to manage our policy in Lebanon.

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