It seems like déjà vu.
Lebanon a battlefield. Israeli soldiers locked in combat with militant Arabs. Israeli planes bombing Beirut. Refugees scrambling to escape. Syria and Iran manipulating.
2006? No, 1983, when almost identical conditions prevailed. The United States was attempting to bring resolution to the conflict. Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization fighters had been persuaded to evacuate Beirut by sea. But Israeli forces were occupying southern Lebanon, while Syrian troops occupied the northeast.
Secretary of State George Shultz, whose spokesman I was, had been assigned by President Reagan to get the Israeli forces out of the south, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were supposed to persuade the Syrians to withdraw from the north. Freed of foreign intervention, Lebanon would have a chance to thrive and prosper. That was the hope.
Thus began for Mr. Shultz and his team a seemingly endless shuttle by air between Jerusalem and Beirut, with side trips to Damascus, Amman, and Riyadh. Primarily, our negotiations were with Amin Gemayel, who succeeded his assassinated brother Bashir as Lebanon's president, and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and their respective foreign ministers and aides. But we also met with Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, Jordan's King Hussein, and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, sometimes shuttling by plane to and from several capitals in a day.
It was exhausting diplomacy, enlivened from time to time with drama. When we stayed overnight once at the US ambassador's residence in Beirut, warring factions sent rockets over the residence roof, causing Mr. Reagan to dispatch a cable to Shultz: "George, keep your head down."
Finally the Israelis agreed to a plan for withdrawal, and Lebanon set out on a perilous path toward hoped-for independence and democracy.
But fast-forward 23 years to 2006 and the wheel has turned full circle. Hizbullah has emerged and taken hold of southern Lebanon without fear of being ousted by the Lebanese army or government. It has attacked Israel with rockets. Israeli forces have responded, bombing parts of Beirut and moving into Lebanon to destroy Hizbullah strongholds and caches of weapons supplied by Iran and transported through Syria. After almost a quarter of a century, Lebanon is again racked by violence between Arabs and Israelis that has shown little prospect of abating.
A small United Nations force, UNIFIL, has been stationed along the Lebanese-Israeli border since 1948, but it is impotent in the face of such fierce fighting as is currently under way between Hizbullah and Israel.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested inserting into southern Lebanon a larger international peacekeeping force, but there are problems with this. First, there needs to be a cease-fire before such a force could be in place. As of the time of writing, a cease-fire is but a distant hope.
Second, though UN peacekeepers have done noble work in various parts of the world, they are usually lightly armed and intended only to maintain order between factions that have fought to a standstill. They are not equipped with the heavy armament needed to end an ongoing war between well-armed adversaries. As we know from the UN experience in the Balkans, if the mission is actually to stop a war under way, what is required is a fighting force with artillery, tanks, and aircraft, something that NATO, rather than the UN, is better qualified to undertake. Israel has professed some interest.
It is doubtful that this is something the US could, or should, participate in. The US military is fully extended in Iraq and for political reasons should not be involved in operations between Arabs and Israelis. For the same political reasons, the national contingents in any such force would have to be chosen carefully. Even nations acceptable to both Arabs and Israelis might shun signing up for such unenviable service as trying to keep apart two sides that have been at militant odds for decades.
The real solution to the current crisis in Lebanon is one that Shultz attempted to achieve 23 years ago. The Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon, but Syria continues to meddle in Lebanese politics. Iran is supplying rockets and other weaponry to a militant Hizbullah faction menacing Israel. That faction, as the UN has ordered without success, should be disarmed.
Lebanon has made substantial strides lately toward democracy and independence from Syria. It deserves better than to be plunged again into chaos by the actions of a terrorist group like Hizbullah.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs, and State Department spokesman, in the Reagan administration.