A Lebanese newspaper columnist paid presidential troubleshooter Philip C. Habib a compliment today by suggesting he should become a permanent part of the peacekeeping machinery in the Middle East like various United Nations operations established over the years.
Such barbed praise for a man who a little over two weeks ago was playing golf in retirement in Belmont, Calif., reflects the many singular traits that have made Habib something out of the ordinary throughout his long career.
Born the son of a Lebanese immigrant grocer in Brooklyn 61 years ago, Habib has combined the Levantine ease of approach and warmth that have pleased Arab and Isaeli interlocutors alike with a traditional diplomatic horror of publicity.
Yet, the shrewd Middle East observers watching Habib at work also thought they saw the revenge of a career diplomat recalled to service when a fledgling Reagan administration stumbled into a major world crisis.
Suddenly called back to service like a John Le Carre character, Habib was involved in trying to prevent serious Soviet inroads in the Mideast from which the administration had trumpeted its desire to ban Moscow's remaining influence.
Arab and Israeli politicans and diplomats wondered admiringly at Habib's modus operandi, which mixes direct contact with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and the leeway few Foreign Service officers of any nation have been allowed since the invention of high-speed communications.
"Habib gives you the impression that he's operating on his own, feeling his way, almost groping," a Lebanese source said, "as if he is getting no solid guidance from Washington because the Reagan administration has no clear Mideast policy as yet."
"His approach is nonstructured and there's none of the obvious State Department orders: 'Explain points 1, 2, 3, 4, and do not proceed to point 5 until you have covered sub clauses a, b, c, d,'" he added.
Habib's first order of meaningful business in the crisis, which has threatened a new conflict between Syria and Israel over antiaircraft batteries placed in Lebanon by Damascus, was to reestablish American influence in Syria. It had been reduced to the point of near-no-return by Haig's failure to include Damascus on his Mideast familiarization trip last month and what Syria perceived as other Reagan administration snubs.
The crisis has proved that Syria cannot be ignored in any Mideast peace negotiations. As President Hafez Assad -- who is not known to praise diplomats, especially American diplomats, in public -- said today: Habib "is making efforts for which he is to be thanked." The Syrian leader has jokingly invited him to come back to Syria as a tourist.
The charm of this short, squat, balding man has worked its magic on Israelis, too.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin last night said, "I want to express our deep gratidtude to my friend, Mr. Philip Habib, for his immense . . . efforts, intellectually, physically, morally invested in his efforts to bring about a peaceful solution in the crisis."
Hannon Bar-on, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's North American section, articulated impressions shared by other Israelis and Lebanese interlocutors as well.
Phil is a very lovable man. I admire him. He's very gregarious, but on the other hand very discreet," Bar-on said. "He has a vast sense of humor, a storehouse of stories to tell. He's very outgoing, but very guarded. He keeps his own counsel and only talks at great length about things he wants you to know.He is very inventive in his own thinking. He will try to secure his flanks as much as he can, but he doesn't show that he's doing that."
He added, "Habib moves from one issue to another and back again and does not feel uncomfortable if all the ends are not neatly tucked in one by one . . . He pulls cards out and takes them back again."
Inevitably, both Arabs and Israelis have compared him to his onetime boss, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, who described Habib as "the antithesis of the public stereotype of the elegant, excessively genteel foreign service officer . . . rough, blunt, direct, as far from the striped-pants image as it is possible to be."
"Sure both Habib and Kissinger are Semites and know how to deal with Arabs and Jews -- the hugs and kisses, the endless tea and coffee -- in a way that [former secretaries of state] Cyrus Vance and William Rogers could never pull off," a Lebanese poltician said.
"But there the similarities end because Kissinger was viewed as elusive and evasive -- even devious -- by both Arabs and Israelis," the politician added, "while Habib is perceived as a lot more straightforward and likely to have major reservations about . . . Henry's kind of modus operandi."
Another character trait mentioned time and time again is Habib's ability to listen to others. Former Lebanese prime minister Saeb Salam said, "Habib kept telling me he wanted ammunition for his talks with Syrians and the Israelis," at the very least a flattering show of interest and confidence in an elder statesman.
Yet Habib is something of a rough diamond, given to coarse talk in private -- although solicitous of junior staff and secretaries -- and no respector of colleagues who do not do their homework.
"He used to work 20 hours a day as a young Foreign Service officer," a colleague recalled, "and would have worked 24 hours if he could have. He expects others to do likewise."
That pace caught up with him. Two heart attacks finally forced him to retire in 1979 after a 30-year career that took him to the pinnacle for a Foreign Service officer, the under secretaryship.
Although now described as a Mideast specialist, he stayed far away from the region while he was making his reputation in the Far East.
In 1962 he was political counselor in South Korea and seized the main chance when he occupied the same, but vastly more demanding, job in South Vietnam. Kissinger recalled when president Nixon took power in 1969 Habib had "despaired" of American victory in Vietnam, but insisted that American withdrawal take place "with dignity."
It was only after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war that Kissinger began using Habib in his Middle East shuttle diplomacy.