WHEN I FIRST began to study the Arab world aquarter century ago, scholarly wisdom had it that "so goes Lebanon, so goes nothing." Sometime around 1976 that unique and introverted little state ("three million members of sixteen officially recognized sects . . . at times held together only in their paranoid fear and loathing of each other") became the Connecticut-sized tail that wagged a barely-ambulatory Arab dog. Jonathan Randal marvelously interprets this transformation without scholarly pretention but with scarcely-contained moral outrage.

Randal is not enamored of bigots, hypocrites, thugs and megalomaniacs with which Lebanon is amply endowed. Many of them are not even Lebanese but foreign-made imports from Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian diaspora. For Randal it is above all the Maronite Christians and the Israelis who are the bad guys in a cockpit where there are no good guys. But none of the sorry protagonists in this spectacle will like Randal's book, a fact that speaks strongly to its merits. Undoubtedly Christians and Israelis will protest that they have been singled out unfairly, but to the extent that both have constantly, and in the Israeli case always successfully, put the bite on U.S. guilt and the U.S. purse, Randal's emphasis is not misplaced but long overdue.

The book is part historical r,esum,e, offering little that is new but still written with panache, and part reporter's diary. (Randal is one of The Washington Post's reporters in the Middle East.) The accounting of the Lebanese civil war after 1975, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the assassination of the Christian Duce, Bashir Gamayel, and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, are laced with portraits of would-be heroes and garden-variety killers that eloquently document that nearly everyone has been dragged down to the same gutter level. Throughout, Randal mourns a sleazy, vibrant, rapacious, gaudy, inventive Levantine Lebanon, gone now, but in its going peopled, sparsely, with real heroes of great courage and devotion: there were Tariq Mitri, an unarmed specialist in the recovery of kidnapped persons; Fuad Bizri, head of the Lebanese Electric Company, who risked his life throughout the civil war to make sure that all of Beirut received some power each day; Antranik Manoogian, director of the mental hospital who fed and cared for his wards in nearly impossible circumstances, while the world around them went mad. There were thousands of others whistling in the wind.

Who then are these Maronite Christians upon whom have been placed the hopes for salvaging Lebanon from the wreckage of the last decade? Randal offers no complete picture, but outlines their story through the creation of the proto-fascist Phalange Party of Sheikh Pierre Gemayel after 1936 and the rise to dominance among the Maronites of his mistrusted son, Bashir, in the late 1970s. Through this device we get a sharp and I believe accurate picture of a self-righteous minority, harkening back to its alleged Phoenician paternity, caught somewhere between the decadence of city life and its rough mountain origins. Convinced, often with cause, that it is besieged by Muslim enemies, it has over the centuries reached out to the West for protection, all the while sustaining a blinkered cysted vision of the world. Today the Christians picture themselves as manning the battlements of the free world against communist (read PLO, Syrians, etc.) encroachment. But basically they demand help when they want it, and in the manner they prescribe, while refusing advice as part of the deal. Only we know our adversaries, they seem to say; just give us the means to deal with them. Otherwise stay the hell out.

No Christian leaders have yet been able to cut that deal with Western powers. Rather it was to Israel that the Christians turned in hope not only of a blank check but of active Israeli military support of their drive to quash the Palestinians in Lebanon. After Israel's first invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978, the alliance was secured. In many ways it seemed made in heaven. An Israel led by a coalition of forces for whom the socialist and labor Zionist credo of earlier years meant little, but for whom religious zealotry and redemptive nationalism meant the world, or at least the West Bank, joined forces with its Levantine mirror image across the border. The Sabra and Shatila massacres, or their functional equivalent, were nearly a foregone conclusion. But this alliance meant neither love nor respect among its partners. They could agree that Palestinians were the target, but beyond that the Israelis could scarcely mask their contempt for their allies. Israeli Army spokesman, General Yaakov Even boasted in April 1982, "We are on the offensive, we are the aggressors who are penetrating the so-called border of the so-called sovereign state of Lebanon and we go after them (the Palestinians) wherever they hide."

It is upon these two cantankerous and frequently duplicitous allies, that the United States is resting its hopes for the restoration of a healthy, sovereign Lebanon, and for wider negotiated settlements in the Arab- Israeli arena. Because they are our allies, Randal does us a service in painting them with all their warts. He does us a disservice, however, in not giving equal time to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the so-called Lebanese Progressives, and that enigmatic, possibly villainous Lebanese Druze leader (assassinated in 1978), Kamal Jumblatt. Few this side of the Atlantic ever loved them much anyway, but they are given only the most cursory treatment in Randal's pages, and then in the most abbreviated and neutral terms. They have by and large been worthy of the standards of thuggery and brutality set by Randal's main targets, and it lessens the impact of his depiction by implying that these "others" were guided by loftier ideals.

It is, however, a tribute to Randal, that after a long career spent in unpleasant situations, he can still be moved to outrage at the bestiality he witnessed in Lebanon, and a tribute of sorts to the players in this not-so- great game that they could penetrate his hide. This book should be on the bedside table of all our legislators. It should be on yours too.