The prolonged disappearance and presumed kidnap by Lebanese hostage-takers of Terry Waite has put the British government in an acute dilemma. Mr. Waite, a soft-spoken Anglican envoy with his own ideas about how to win release for hostages, had been out of contact for 12 days by yesterday. British authorities finally concluded that the archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy had been seized. They suggested privately that Archbishop Robert Runcie should never have allowed Waite to travel to Beirut.
The disappearance of Mr. Waite, who has become something of a folk hero to Britons, is an awkward problem for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. So long as he remained safe, British officials were able to distance themselves from his operation. Now Mrs. Thatcher is under mounting pressure to ensure he is found.
Waite has never been a favorite of the British Foreign Office. Officials have not found it prudent to say they resent Waite's activities - his success rate is too high for that - but they are clearly irked by his unorthodox methods. After Waite had been unseen for over a week, Thatcher expressed admiration for his bravery. She voiced the hope that he was safe, but stressed that he had his own methods.
This weekend it was disclosed that before Waite set out Jan. 20 to meet with the captors of two American hostages, John Gray, Britain's ambassador in Beirut, advised him the mission was too dangerous. When Dr. Runcie heard about it, he is said to have asked Waite not to proceed, but did not stop him.
It was reported Saturday that, before his secret meeting, Waite left behind a letter saying that if he was taken hostage, he did not want anyone to take risks or pay a ransom for him. Before Waite left for Lebanon, Ambassador Gray told him that his meetings last year with Lt. Col. Oliver North, the former White House official involved in the Iran-arms scandal, may have eroded his credibility in Arab eyes.
``Whatever the advice,'' Runcie said Saturday, ``Terry was determined to complete his mission, no matter what were the risks to himself.'' Runcie has been accused by some of naivet'e in not responding earlier to suggestions that Waite had become the 27th foreign hostage seized in Beirut. [The Associated Press reported Sunday that Syria, Iran, and Lebanese militia leaders had started intensive ``hush-hush'' negotiations to determine the fate of Waite, who is married and has four children.]
``Terry Waite is certainly a brave man,'' said a British official, echoing Britons' admiration. ``But he is also a little naive. The very nature of his methods is that he must trust the people he talks to. No orthodox diplomat would place that much trust in dangerous men. We can only hope that Waite will emerge safe and sound from the lions' den.''