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U.S. Rebuffing Lebanese Pleas for Mediation : Muslims, Christians Express Their Fear of Permanent Partition

Times Staff Writer

The Reagan Administration, after six years of deep involvement in Lebanon’s internal politics, is quietly rebuffing appeals from both Christian and Muslim leaders in Lebanon to mediate an end to the constitutional crisis that has left the Mediterranean nation without a president for a week.

“We get the feeling that the U.S. is trying to wash its hands of Lebanon,” said a prominent Lebanese envoy.

In interviews, Lebanese leaders on both sides said they fear that their nation will be permanently partitioned into Christian and Muslim fiefdoms, a concern that is reflected in the 10% drop in the value of the Lebanese currency over the last week.

Warning of Partition

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U.S. officials also have begun warning of a permanently partitioned Lebanon.

“Lebanon in chaos is a likely flashpoint for regional war,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Edward S. Walker Jr. said in a speech here this week. “Lebanon in flames is a constraint on our broader agenda of peace between Arabs and Israel.”

Yet the Reagan Administration, fearful of being thwarted in Lebanon again, has avoided becoming an active mediator. The State Department, which earlier had sought a compromise, has not proposed a specific formula to break the deadlock in the Lebanese Parliament over choosing a successor to President Amin Gemayel, whose term expired last Friday.

Lebanese officials say they are perplexed by Washington’s position.

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“We are in the midst of a crisis, and American intervention would help a lot,” Premier Salim Hoss, leader of the Muslim-dominated Cabinet, said in a telephone interview. “The U.S. made the attempt (before the election failure), and the U.S. should keep on with the effort.

“There is nothing specific we are asking,” Hoss added. “We simply want a president to be elected soon, and there is, as of now, no progress.”

This is one point on which Hoss agrees with the rival Christian government appointed by Gemayel under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, commander of the Lebanese army.

Robert Farah, a spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian militia loosely aligned with the Christian government, said: “It is critical that Washington undo the damage that has been done. The U.S. is vital in breaking the deadlock.”

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The Reagan Administration’s hands-off policy marks a major shift after six years of troubled and ultimately tragic involvement in Lebanon. After Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Administration dispatched Marine peacekeepers and special envoys to try to end Lebanon’s troubles.

But each of the U.S. efforts to eliminate the presence of foreign troops, negotiate a formal peace between Lebanon and Israel and find terms for political reform eventually collapsed.

And along the way, two American embassies and a Marine compound were blown up, killing more than 250 Americans, and 57 Americans were taken hostage between 1982 and 1988. Nine remain in captivity, creating a national trauma ultimately responsible for the disastrous arms-for-hostages swap with Iran that became the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.

Last January, aware that Lebanon would have difficulty selecting a new president when Gemayel’s six-year term ended, U.S. envoys began a series of efforts to mediate between the interested parties--not only Lebanon’s various religious sects but also Syria, the dominant foreign power in Lebanon and a close ally of many Lebanese Muslims.

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In a final appeal to Gemayel before he appointed Aoun to head a provisional military government last week, Secretary of State George P. Shultz pledged that the United States would launch a new effort to mediate constitutional reforms after the election, according to Lebanese and U.S. sources.

But with the de facto partition of Lebanon, the United States instead has distanced itself from the crisis.

So far, the Administration has been prepared only to provide a medium to relay messages between the Christians, Muslims and Syrians. New U.S. Ambassador John McCarthy, who took up his post in Beirut only last Saturday, has talked with both cabinets.

At the same time, however, much of McCarthy’s staff has been evacuated and he has been unable to officially present his credentials because of the absence of a chief of state.

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“It’s not true that we’ve lost interest,” insisted an Administration source who asked not to be identified. “But what, practically, can we do? There’s no magic figure who hasn’t already been thought of for the presidency. We’ve already looked at every angle.

“Frankly, ideas about a role for the U.S. in Lebanon aren’t very popular these days.”


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