French have second thoughts about the wisdom of their air strike in Lebanon
While the American government continues to weigh the possibility of reprisals in Lebanon, questions are being raised here about the benefits of the surprise French raid five days ago.
What was the object of the attack? Did it succeed in destroying its objective?
Most important, will it strain France's relations with its European and Arab allies, making the French a target for violent revenge attacks?
At first, the attack's purpose seemed to be revenge for the recent bombing in Beirut that left 56 French soldiers dead. By the end of the last week, French intelligence reportedly had the names of six men who had participated. The evening before he sent the Super Etendard jets sweeping over the Bekaa Valley, President Francois Mitterrand warned on national television that ''the crime will not remain unpunished.''
But after the strike, French Defense Ministry officials insisted its purpose was not revenge. The planes were sent ''to prevent further attacks against French forces in Lebanon.''
The French officials also insisted that the strike was a successful ''surgical operation,'' destroying the barracks used by Iranian and Lebanese Shiite terrorists. Just exactly what had been destroyed, however, still is not clear.
The Defense Ministry first announced that the target was at Baalbek. Then firsthand reports said the French had fired only about 10 missiles near the city , most of them hitting a vineyard just outside the town.
The Defense Ministry promptly changed it story. It claimed the target was 10 kilometers east of Baalbek - a location off limits to journalists. Monday, Defense Minister Charles Hernu showed reporters photos of partially destroyed barracks occupied by Shiite militia men.
Still, the extent of the damage and the number of casualties remain unclear. The French insist that no civilians were hurt. Reports from Lebanon say that at least one farmer was killed.
The president of the Iranian parliament gave his version of the casualty count when he announced Sunday that the French, along with the Israelis who the day before attacked a site nearby, had killed 14 revolutionary guards.
The planning of the attack, like its military impact, remains a mystery. The Defense Ministry said that the Americans were informed beforehand, but not the Israelis. They add that there was no coordination with either the US or Israel.
But some reports say Israeli planes were in the vicinity of Baalbek during the strike. Other reports say that American logistical help was given.
The attack's aftershocks remain unpredictable as well. Security has been increased around French posts in Beirut - and around sensitive buildings in Paris. Three attacks against French soldiers in Beirut since the bombing have already been reported. And on Sunday evening a bomb exploded in a Paris restaurant, wounding 30. At time of writing, no one had claimed responsibility.
There are also diplomatic repercussions from the French air raid. It cast a shadow over a one-day visit Friday by Mr. Mitterrand to Italy. The press and politicians criticized the use of violence and expressed surprise at France's failure to consult Rome. Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti said he disapproved of all such military actions by members of the Beirut peacekeeping force. Britain also distanced itself from the action.
In the Arab world, condemnations came quickly. The strong statement from Syria and Iran could be expected, since the area attacked is under Syrian military control and Iranians were killed. But more moderate countries such as Kuwait and Algeria also protested strongly.
At home, uncertainties about the raid are beginning to worry the public. At first, almost every French figure of note outside of the Communist Party voiced strong approval. But now doubts are being aired about whether the raid will increase the violence it was supposed to prevent.
The socialist union CFDT has issued a statement expressing its fear that the bombing will lead to an escalation of violence in Lebanon. And the originally favorable left-leaning Le Monde entitled its lead article in Tuesday's editions ''A badly designed operation.''