Italy's Beirut force goes home with new image, little results

When the Italian peacekeeping force from Beirut disembarked at Leghorn, Italy , on Sunday morning, it received a hero's welcome. ''I am proud of you. You have shown that proud soldiers can be generous and good men, as Italians know how to be,'' said President Sandro Pertini, embracing some of the 1,300 soldiers with tears in his eyes.

But when the fanfare has died down and the Lebanese experience is realistically evaluated, the lasting effects of Italy's presence will likely appear somewhat vague.

''Certainly it has given a better image to Italy on an international scale,'' says Roberto Aliboni, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. ''But most Italians thought Italy's participation in the peacekeeping force would mean greater responsibility and thus a greater voice in the alliance. But it seems to have remained rather a vague hope.''

Despite the praiseworthy Italian performance, Mr. Aliboni views the withdrawal of the multinational troops as a failure for both United States and European policy in the Mideast. The Lebanese situation, he says, ''was an area where US policy had been much criticized and where the European multinational forces had a chance to show their paces in a concrete way in a united effort.''

They missed their chance, he concludes, because they were unable to coordinate. ''Each contingent went its own way, and in the final analysis had little influence on the eventual outcome of the war.''

During their 17-month stay in Lebanon, the Italians twice remarked on the individual action of the French and US contingents: after the French reprisal bombings for the attack on their headquarters in October, and on the abrupt announcement of the US withdrawal.

The uncoordinated troop withdrawals were also seen as damaging to the future of the alliance. The lack of unity ''increases the differences and the diffidence which already exist between us,'' was one comment from the Defense Ministry.

Protecting Palestinian civilians in Beirut was not the least of the Italians' difficulties. They then had to withdraw honorably from a situation in which each contingent had become a sort of partisan force - and where, as the situation deteriorated, the hands of the superpowers at work behind Syria and Israel became more evident.

Lebanon had become a prominent part of foreign policy in Italy's first Socialist-led government. Apart from his unsuccessful efforts to act as mediator between the Lebanese factions, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi has also expressed hope that Italy play a leading part in a United Nations peacekeeping force, if one is formed.

Lacking from the outset, says Aliboni, was the understanding that a political , not military, solution was the answer in Lebanon. ''What was also clear from the beginning,'' he says, ''was that US policy in the Middle East needs continuous sustenance from European resources, both within and without the NATO framework.''

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