AN AMERICAN, COUGHING in the smoke-filled basement of a burning hotel in West Beirut, put the question succinctly:
"Where is the American administration? Is Reagan awake?"
The answer is that the American administration is cowering in Washington and that the President is awake -- awake, that is, to the fact that this is an election year, when it is especially dangerous to criticize Israel.
Bombs and shells rained down on West Beirut for 14 hours a week ago today. On Wednesday, they came from air, land and sea from midnight to nightfall. But it is not politic to deplore indiscriminate bombing of civilians with the fall campaign so close at hand.
On Tuesday, Reagan went to Hartford to fall all over the Knights of Columbus, and to say, with a perfectly straight face, "I . . . believe that the protection of innocent life, is, and has always been, a legitimate, indeed, the first duty of government." For "innocent" read "unborn" -- he was speaking of abortion.
That day, the slaughter of innocents was proceeding with weapons made in the U.S. The morning papers carried a picture of a 5-month-old baby who lost both arms in the shelling. On the nightly news, a blazing-eyed young Lebanese-American woman doctor named Amal Shamma, who was standing in the Babir Hospital amid victims of phosphorus and cluster bombs, pointed to the corpses of 5-day-old twin girls, and said she hoped the Israelis felt more "secure" now that the twins were dead.
Reagan forbears even to note the Israelis are breaking the law by using the vicious cluster bomb in offensive action. He is not even sure yet that the Israeli assault is not "defensive." The violence, he said recently, is "two- way" -- as if the PLO had suddenly acquired an air force and a navy to match the Israelis shot for shot.
But we are not, it seems, to think that our President is callous or obtuse. Why just last Sunday, he said he was going to be "firm" with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, at their upcoming meeting.
"Firm" consisted of conspicuously not joshing with the minister when they gathered for the photo-opportunity. It was the use of as deadly a weapon as he had employed against Prime Minister Menachem Begin at their June session. You remember he withheld his famous smile. We have seen the devastating effect this had on both callers. They sent the tanks into West Beirut.
Begin has taken Reagan's measure. He knows that despite his campaign calls for "toughness" in foreign policy, Reagan shies away from decisive, unpleasant actions. Wednesday night, after even the American Hospital in Beirut had been hit, Begin told a group of visiting American Jews that "Nobody will preach to us."
That is singularly arrogant from a welfare client. Nobody from the Reagan administration would stand for it in the South Bronx. The U.S. subsidizes Israel at the rate of $7 million a day. But Reagan doesn't breathe the word "sanctions." Israeli spokesmen tell us that Israel is "an independent state" when asked if they take any account of the muffled expressions of "displeasure" from the White House.
The equation has been starkly put to timid politicians: If you condemn Israel, you condone the PLO and terrorism. Never mind that thousands are dying. It will be worth it all if we can just get Arafat and his gunmen out of Beirut. What lies beyond, except for a land-office business in artificial limbs, we have no idea.
The political cost to Reagan can be charges of impotence or callousness or both. But he is willing to face them. Besides his election-year considerations, he has his devotion to Israel as an anticommunist bastion. And his pollster, Richard Wirthlin, tells him that Americans are torn between long-held sympathy for the Israel that used to be, and horror for the Israel that is and what it has wrought in Beirut. As long as the country temporizes, he can temporize.
He has much Democratic company in his shelter. Two promiment liberals, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Toby Moffett, whose hearts hemorrhaged at the plight of carpet-bombing victims in Vietnam and at the sight of refugees in Central America, have told Reagan to move over.
They lent their names and quotes to a full- page ad taken out in The New York Times by the American Jewish Congress. Moffett, a Lebanese-American running for the Senate, recited the weasel resolution he seconded at the Democrats' miniconvention in Philadelphia, looking to the Israeli action as contributing "to the reunification and restoration of Lebanese sovereignty."
For his part, Kennedy echoed the slogan of the Jewish Defense League. "Never again should Lebanon be a base for terrorism and murder." Kennedy is running for reelection and wants to build up massive majorities for his presidential prospects. Jewish voters vote, you know.
The only courage on the scene is displayed by the doctors in Beirut. They tend the wounded and the dying, whose numbers will increase as long as the U.S. provides the Israelis with a most valuable weapons -- silence.