President Reagan has repeatedly stated that the United States has vital interests in Lebanon. Although he has not indicated what those interests are, a close reading of government pronouncements indicates that Washington has two objectives in Lebanon. One of these is to bring peace to the country; the other is to retain a pro-American government in Beirut and extend its rule to the rest of the country. Although invariably mentioned as though they were complementary goals, these are in fact mutually exclusive. Either the US government directs its policies toward ending the civil war in Lebanon or it aims to ensure a pro-Western government, but not both. The reasons for this have to do with the cultural dimension of the Lebanese civil war.
Although a myriad of domestic factions are involved in the civil war, there are basically just two major coalitions. One includes those who benefited from the status quo ante as it existed before the civil war began in 1975; the other consists of those who felt deprived by that structure. One side tries to preserve the distribution of power, wealth, and privilege in Lebanon, the other tries to bring it down.
Despite numerous exceptions, the pro-status quo forces consist mainly of Christians and the rebels are mostly Muslims. Christians make up about 40 percent of the Lebanese population and Muslims (including the Druze) about 60 percent. Each of these communities is divided by sect into many smaller political factions.
On the Christian side, Catholic Maronites dominate politically. Their strong communal bonds in the 19th century led to the creation of modern Lebanon in 1920 , and they have controlled the government since independence in 1943. Maronites have always been those most devoted to the ideal of Lebanon as an independent state.
The Maronites' political success derives in large part from their connection to the Vatican and France, which goes back to medieval times. Not only did they profit from modern education and international trade, but these contacts won them powerful European patrons. As a result of depending on the West for so much , Maronites came to see themselves as an outpost of European civilization in the Muslim Middle East. Eventually, being a part of the West became a key aspect of the Maronite identity. Although Arabic-speaking, Maronites kept their distance from Muslim Arabs after 1920 and Lebanon stayed at some remove from the other Arab states, all of which are predominantly Muslim. For the US, all this means that Maronite control ensures a friendly government in Beirut.
The Muslims of Lebanon, to the contrary, have deeply ambivalent attitudes toward the West. Like their co-religionists throughout the world, they are attracted to the cultural, military, and economic achievements of Europe and America at the same time that they resent having to emulate the Christian world. The fact that Maronites have associated so closely with the West has pushed the Sunni Muslims away from the West and prompted them to identify more closely with the Arab world. Unlike the Maronites, who see the government of Syria as the greatest threat to their independence, the Sunnis see Damascus as their special patron.
The US has a choice in Lebanon. It can work to keep the government in Beirut pro-American or to seek peace. The first policy implies Maronite domination and the preservation of precisely those inequalities that provoked Muslim discontent and led to civil war in 1975. Should the civil war continue, the central government will not control more than a fraction of the country; indeed, the partition of the country into Christian and Muslim areas would be the probable result. The former would remain staunchly pro-American and the latter equally pro-Soviet. These ministates would probably go on fighting each other indefinitely.
The second policy, aimed at achieving peace in Lebanon, implies redistributing power and sharing it with the Muslims more equitably. In that case Lebanon's government would no longer be run by people devoted to close relations with the West. Were Muslims to attain power in Lebanon according to their numbers, the result would certainly be a retreat from the Maronites' overtly pro-American policies. Muslims in control in Beirut would adopt the reserved attitude that characterizes other Arab states' relations with the US. They would be inclined to expand relations with the Soviet Union, and in the short term at least Syrian pressure would certainly push them toward close relations with the Soviet bloc.
The US government ultimately faces a choice of two prospects in Lebanon: a friendly government in one part of a country at war or a less friendly government in a country at peace. The President must eventually decide which of these unappealing situations is more in the interests of the US.