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No to retaliation

On the eve of President Reagan's tour to East Asia, two former Presidents have taken the unusual step of cautioning him against a capricious military strike in the Middle East. Surely, any vengeful, retaliatory action, alone or in concert with the Israelis, would frustrate diplomatic efforts now under way, risk wider warfare, and sink the United States in the eye-for-an-eye morass that has long imperiled the region.

The Grenada adventure has worked out rather well for President Reagan, in some respects. Democrats who inspected the island have endorsed his decision to send in the Marines and Rangers. This further drives a wedge between the Democratic leadership, divided on the Grenada action. Administration motives for the invasion have been transformed by hindsight - but the herding up and deporting of Cuban, Soviet, and assorted other nondemocratic types, who clearly could have been up to no good in Grenada, gives the President a positive bon voyage as he leaves today for Japan and South Korea.

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Still, the tiniest of islands in the Caribbean that can be held by a few hundred militiamen is not the powder keg of the Middle East. No doubt President Carter's warning that ''a new outbreak of military attacks by our forces or others would be counterproductive in this sensitive time,'' and President Ford's caution that ''we should not lash out in some reckless military action,'' are based on the fear that military adventurism in the Middle East might look appealing. A time of travel to some other region, such as East Asia, could be used as a propitious moment to launch a retaliatory attack.

US policy in the Middle East itself shows a basic contradiction, either by design or because opposing White House factions have not been able to settle their differences. The US has been amassing greater force off Lebanon's shores. Officials have been talking up US links with Israel, hinting at some joint security action. This no doubt is a message to Syria not to take advantage of recent tragic loss of life of Israeli and American troops and any potential pullout pressure. At the same time, US officials also suggest leaning on Israel to modify Israel's withdrawal pact with Lebanon, negotiated without Syrian input. The recess in the Geneva reconciliation talks on Lebanon has been extended so that President Gemayel can seek some accommodation with Israel on withdrawal. Intimating a US-Israeli strike might make Syria cautious. Affirming US ties to Israel, in the form of a joint action, might reassure Israel that a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon would not leave it unduly vulnerable on its northern border.

But this is all risky business. Yasser Arafat's fight for survival as a Palestinian leader in Tripoli to the north is but another reminder of bitter tension raging over Lebanon. At the moment Mr. Gemayel is playing his own split hand. As leader of the Phalange Christians, his main goal is to get the Syrians out. But having to pursue reconciliation among Lebanon's warring factions, he has to avoid opposing the Arabs outright. Nonetheless, if the US and Israelis should launch some strike, it would presumably be coordinated with the Lebanese government. Given all these contradictions, it is no wonder Mr. Reagan's immediate predecessors, who stay in touch with their old trusted advisers, are worried.

By visiting only Japan and South Korea, President Reagan continues the heavy Western Hemisphere emphasis in his security policy. US policy is still in trouble in Southeast Asia, where the President has canceled visits to Thailand and Indonesia as well as to the Philippines. In Southeast Asia, there can be no easy military solutions, as Vietnam taught the West. Analysts think Mr. Reagan might be led to emphasize areas where such a route might be tempting.

We hope Mr. Reagan's first peaceful visits to the two economically ever more muscular Asian allies will dominate world news while he travels.

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