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Diplomats, marines: missions & purpose

Like a tragic punctuation mark, the latest terrorist car bomb attack in Lebanon draws world attention back to that troubled land. Again Washington is asking, How could we let it happen? A contingency of US marines had pulled out of Beirut only weeks earlier, leaving the diplomatic facility vulnerable. Protective gates were idly waiting to be installed within a day or so. In effect, security was in the hands of rent-a-guard Phalangist militia at the east Beirut annex, which had become the US Embassy's operations base. Congress and the Pentagon have another sad inquiry to mount.

It is not enough for the Reagan administration to suggest that terrorism is a random act, that its perpetrators are irrational, that there can be no foolproof defense - and thereby entirely to evade accountability. Granted, these are factors. But in this case as in previous terrorist attacks, on the US Embassy and the airport marine encampment, there were apparent lapses in alertness to warnings and in taking precautionary steps.

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If it is not possible to protect diplomatic personnel abroad in missions, they should be withdrawn. The professional diplomat has enough hassle in his job , with decision power tightly held by the White House, that he should not be asked to risk his safety, too.

We are not necessarily at that point of diplomatic pullout yet in Lebanon. Professional diplomats themselves argue that a withdrawal would be a mistake. To have influence, a US presence is crucial. Pullout under duress would only play to the aim of extremists who want to expel the United States from the region.

But it is up to Washington to make this case.

What is Washington's game plan there, anyway?

Washington has no discernible diplomatic initiative under way. Quarreling Lebanese factions are trying to compose a constituent assembly. Given the diversity of sects and the bitterness of rivalries, this is no easy task. Syria, supposedly the lead player now in the Lebanese game, finds solutions elusive. Southern Lebanon, under Israeli occupation, is in no shape to govern itself when and if Israel withdraws. Israel's new defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, acknowledges that both the United States and Israel failed in their original objectives for Lebanon, and he wants Israel to be done with the territory it holds. With no message to send, Washington no longer has a Middle East coordinator shuttling around.

Lebanon has drifted into diplomatic limbo, as far as the US and Israel are concerned, while the two countries work out their political successions.

Meanwhile, missions are expected to maintain a precarious presence, to show the flag until some new sense of diplomatic purpose arrives on the scene.

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It is as much this lapse in purpose as a failure in physical protection that should be reviewed on Capitol Hill.

Otherwise, where the terrain is known to be dangerous, send in the diplomats, like the marines, when there's a job to be done. Don't risk their lives when there isn't.

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