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A message to Lebanon

THE withdrawal of Red Cross workers from Lebanon may be just the jolt that country needs. The Swiss workers were evacuated Tuesday from the former ``Switzerland of the Middle East'' because of threats to their safety. The departure of the Red Cross means that Lebanon has one less outside source of relief, one less impartial angel, one less foreign intermediary.

That's a shame. But it could help awaken Lebanese to the fact that their destiny is in their own hands, and by their hands it will blossom or wither. That's a new idea for them.

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The Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamalukes, and Arabs all have ruled what is now Lebanon. It fell under the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Ottoman rule ended with World War I, and Lebanon was put under a French mandate until independence in 1943.

Yet even in independence, Lebanon retained the French-designed confessional system of government, which parcels out top positions according to religious affiliation: Maronite Christian, Shiite Muslim, or Sunni Muslim.

Thus Lebanon came into being as a nation whose unity was the legacy of foreign rule, not of the casting off of foreign rule. Its intercommunal rivalries and suspicions were not overcome by, but enshrined in, the new government. This has made possible such absurdities as two enemies, Israel and Iraq, both giving aid to the Christian population. And erstwhile allies, Syria and Iran, compete for the loyalty of Lebanon's Shiite community, resulting in a Lebanese Shiite intracommunal war alongside Lebanon's 13-year-old civil war.

No wonder Lebanon has quite nearly come apart. If the recent failure to elect a new president and speaker of parliament didn't offer evidence enough, the departure of the Red Cross shows just how difficult constructive efforts are in such an atmosphere.

The Lebanese themselves say they don't want partition. They want to keep the land united, and keep appealing to outsiders - the United States, Syria, the United Nations - to provide the glue. But competing outside pressures are a force of disintegration, not cohesion. The real need is for bona fide nationalism and patriotism to replace centuries of narrow partisanship and its foreign subsidizers.

What does it tell the country when even the Red Cross gives up on it?

That it is high time to cut the puppet strings being pulled in foreign capitals. In their place are needed new and stronger ties linking the warring factions, binding them together in a single purpose.

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The moment calls for leaders with the vision to see that the common good can be much, much greater than the sum of the individual community privileges and prerogatives. That vision must be matched by willingness to forgive and rebuild. With such leaders, Lebanon would need no outside help to survive. Without them, no outside help will be adequate.

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