This is a war story: it's July and I'm sweltering in the center of West Beirut. Foreign troops ring the city. Tracer fire arcs across the rooftops of shell-pocked buildings. A shock wave from a nearby explosion pops open the French doors of my hotel room. A special presidential envoy crisscrosses the city in search of peace.
It's July--but in 1958, when the foreign troops in Lebanon were U.S. Marines and Army, 14,000 strong, with some 75 American warships standing offshore. Israel, still the lonely David against an Arab Goliath (including Egypt), was not involved. Neither, overtly, was Syria. There was no PLO. In less than two weeks, the U.S. mediator, Robert Murphy, settled what was essentially a Lebanese civil war; Lebanon was to be precariously stable and relatively tranquil for some 17 years.
The moral of this war story, then, is most emphatically not that the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same. The moral has to do with what was so profoundly different about the Lebanese crisis and the Middle East scene in 1958. It has to do, as well, with what's missing in the U.S. approach in 1982: a genuine willingness to confront the "new facts"--the ones that the Israelis speak of (and often help create) and the ones that they vigorously resist.
Fact Number One: Israel is now Goliath, at peace with Egypt, unmenaced by Jordan or Syria or by any combination of Arab military might. It is probably more capable of deploying more military force, faster, in almost any corner of the region than is the United States.
It feels free to sweep through Lebanon, to lay siege to Beirut, to demand the withdrawal of the Syrian army, to insist on the extinction of the PLO as a political as well as a military force, and to set the terms for its departure (including the makeup of the Lebanese government it would leave behind).
Fact Number Two: American power and influence are best measured by what the United States could do in 1958 and cannot, or will not, bring itself to do today. When a bloody coup unseated a friendly regime in Baghdad on July 14, 1958, and threatened destabilization of the whole neighborhood, President Eisenhower was able to put the first contingent of U.S. Marines across the Beirut beaches by July 16, in the face of the merest handwringing in Congress.
The United States lost one man in 102 days ashore, but the intensity of the gang war in Lebanon gave no guarantee that the U.S. forces might not take heavy casualties. But at the first suggestion a few weeks ago of the possible use of maybe 1,000 or so U.S. troops in Beirut as escorts for departing PLO guerrillas, prominent senators started reading aloud from the post- Vietnam War Powers Act, demanding "assurances" and "guarantees" that American forces would not be shot at.
Fact Number Three: What loosely might be called the Palestinian movement is a recognized political force, however divided and deprived of military capability by Israel's blitz through Lebanon. In 1958, the operative word was "refugees." Huddled in camps, fed and housed by the United Nations, the "Palestinians" of those times found their political expression in the self- serving, incendiary rhetoric of Arab governments, crying for the removal of Israel.
Today, crudely, the Palestinian grievance finds expression in political bodies--a Palestinian National Council (or parliament-in- exile), as well as the PLO, which was created by a Palestinian Congress as a consequence of decisions taken at an Arab Summit in 1964. The PLO is a clutch of separate organizations, responsive to different Arab states, given to intolerable violence, but not without its more moderate components.
The point is that there's more to the "Palestinian cause" than a PLO covenant with clauses calling for Israel's extinction, more to it than the person of Yasser Arafat. There's a grievance and a goal--an independent homeland--that most of the nations of the world (and many Americans) think is reasonable. In any case, the idea can't be crushed in Beirut or wished away with airy prescriptions for the enforced absorption of several million displaced former Palestinians by the Arab states.
Fact Number Four: In 1958, Jordan ruled the West Bank, incapable of dealing effectively with the Palestinians in refugee camps, threatened politically by West Bank Palestinian leadership. Today Israel rules the West Bank, claiming eternal rights to its territory, bending its population to Israeli purposes. It is quick to put down, without American objection, each hint of Palestinian flexibility--of which it must be said that Arafat's recent charade with visiting congressmen is perhaps the least significant.
Fact Number Five, in the perspective of 24 years, is the sum of all the rest. The thing, above all else, that has not stayed the same since Lebanon/1958 is the ability of the United States to control events or even to exercise influence. And while this has much to do with the nature of events, it has more to do with American willingness to surrender influence to Israel.