Diplomatic decorum falls by wayside Envoys talking about, but not in, Lebanon

April 25, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- For diplomats, those courtiers of courtesy, those Princes of Polite, there's a whole lot of snubbing going on in the negotiations over south Lebanon.

In their efforts to achieve a cease-fire, the parties have dropped their deferential ways, and are slighting each other like rivals in a beauty queen contest.

First, the Americans did little to hide their disdain for the presence in the area last week of a handful of foreign ministers of other countries, including France and Russia, trying to assert some influence.

"The United States feels a special responsibility, in view of our history and our responsibilities, to intervene in this situation," said U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Translation: Keep out.

"I think the Americans prefer to forge a settlement alone," said Italian Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli, who cut short her trip to Damascus, Syria. Translation: If that's how you feel, I'm leaving.

The Americans were repaid in kind Tuesday when Mr. Christopher jetted back to Syria fresh from talks in Israel. He was formally met at the airport in Damascus, escorted to a hotel, and then told that President Hafez el Assad was "not available." Too busy, you know. Try again tomorrow.

Mr. Christopher, a sour expression on his face, left -- if not in a huff, certainly in a hurry. He returned to Jerusalem.

"We had to go back. Our luggage was there," his aides explained.

En route, he flew over Lebanon. Virtually everyone was flying over Lebanon -- the scene of the conflict. Even the Iranian foreign minister skipped the place. No one bothered to stop to talk to the Lebanese government about the bombardment going on in the country, a slight that rankled the Lebanese.

"Why is Washington humiliating Lebanon?" complained the Lebanese daily As-Safir. "Christopher is shuttling strictly between Damascus and Tel Aviv, completely ignoring Beirut."

"Lebanon [will have] nothing to do with any solution that is not discussed with Lebanese officials," Lebanese President Elias Hrawi huffed on Monday.

In his defense, Mr. Christopher did contemplate stopping in Beirut on Tuesday, but U.S. security officials vetoed a flight into the city as too risky. So yesterday, he drove from Damascus to the Bekaa Valley town of Chtaura for a quick meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri -- his first visit to the country since this shuttle began.

In Washington, President Clinton also tried to soothe Lebanon's ruffled feelings by meeting Mr. Hrawi, who had come to New York to air his grievances at the United Nations. At least there, the diplomats listened to him.

But the meetings yesterday were transparent courtesy calls, invitations so belated they could do little to convince the Lebanese they are really being taken seriously in the discussions.

The Lebanese know, of course, that the diplomats are flocking to see Mr. Assad because Syria holds the real power in Lebanon. If they forget that fact, they are reminded by scores of roadblocks throughout their country manned by Syrian soldiers who sit in guard shacks adorned with pictures of Mr. Assad.

Lebanese officials got no respect this week even from Yasser Arafat.

The Palestinian chief, who has probably paid courtesy calls on more Arab leaders than anyone, delivered a singular insult.

In a speech in Gaza, he thanked "Lebanon and its President Assad." Realizing his mistake, he groped around for the name of Lebanon's president and failed.

The United States believes Mr. Assad is virtually the only one outside of Iran who can tell the Hezbollah guerrillas what to do. Mr. Hariri publicly admits he can not even try.

But while the Lebanese may lack power, they do not lack pride. So even if they aren't wearing the clothes of authority in this conflict, they don't like anyone pointing out that they are naked.

"The Lebanese are capable of handling their own affairs," sniffed Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, head of the Maronite Church in Lebanon. "There's no need for their destiny to be discussed outside their country."

Mr. Christopher returned to Jerusalem yesterday, and said he may return to Damascus today. No mention was made of going to Lebanon again.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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