Western allies stop playing the waiting game

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Now it is West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who is going off eastward to have a chat with Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev. This follows by two days a move by the Saudi Arabian government into the stalled Middle East peace talks. And that in turn follows by a week French President Giscard D'Estaing's surprise rendezvous with Mr. Brezhnev in Warsaw.

Add that the West European allies of the United States are themselves working on plans of their own to move into the Mideast problem on the assumption that Washington leadership in this matter is now paralyzed by domestic US politics. The anxiety both in Western Europe and among the Saudis is that unless the present Mideast stalemate is broken, the situation between Israel and the Arabs will settle back into longterm futility.

All of which adds up to the fact that Washington no longer has exclusive rights over planning and leading the afffairs of the Western allies and their associates -- least of all during a distracting presidential election campaign.

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The prospect of Mr. Schmidt following Mr. Giscard d'Estaing to the Brezhnev reception room does not mean capitulation to Moscow. But it certainly does mean a sea change in the nature of the relationship among those countries that hope to keep out of Moscow's control without risking a nuclear war in the process. They no longer sit back and wait for Washington to take the initiative in alliance matters. They are thinking and acting on their own.

The change has been triggered, but not caused, by growing dissatisfaction with the way Washington has managed or attempted to manage the three main problems in today's world. As the friends and allies outside see matters, Washington has bungled the problem of rescuing the hostages held in Iran, has let itself be distracted by the hostage problem from the more important problem of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, and has lost control of the Middle East situation.

So the others are moving into all three areas and launching new initiatives which, in their effect, leave Washington sitting on the sidelines complaining about the noncooperativeness of the allies.

The allies are being noncooperative whenever they think Washington leadership is either not serving the best interests of the whole community, and their own in particular, or is being ineffective.

As the allies see matters, the campaign for sanctions against Iran was disserving the community. They all sympathize with the desire to rescue the hostages. They all agree (as do even the communist countries) that the holding of hostages is illegal and wrong. But they do not think that Washington's method of shifting back and forth between negotiation and pressures, either economic or military, is any way to get the hostages released or serve the larger interests of the Western community.

They doubt that the Olympic Games boycott is going to influence Moscow toward ending its military adventure in Afghanistan.

And above all, they doubt Washington's ability to take advantage of the present situation in the Middle East to regain the lost momentum from Camp David.

A May 26 date was written into the Camp David formula. By that date Israel was supposed to have reached agreement with Egypt for self-rule for the Arab citizens of the Arab territories now under Israeli military occupation. As it approached it became clear that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no intention of agreeing to a version of self-rule the Arabs could accept. It was equally clear that President Carter in Washington had lost the ability to influence Israel in the direction of such an agreement. If progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace was to be resumed, someone else would have to start things moving again.

On May 25 a lot of people did move to get things started again.Egyptian President Sadat called for new initiatives from Cairo. The Saudi government from Riyadh promised to bring the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arabs into line for peace if Israel would end the occupation. In Israel Defense Minister Ezer Weisman resigned, partly in protest against the failure of Mr. Begin to move further toward peace. In Western Europe the NATO allies worked on plans to bring the PLO into future negotiations.

Underneath all of this is the fact that today's world is different from the world of the 1950s when the NATO alliance was being forged. Back in those days only the United States among the noncommunist countries possessed global military power and surplus industrial capacity. It was the military shield, the arsenal, and the supplier of reconstruction goods for all of the war-damaged and exhausted countries. It was the leader because it alone possessed the things that could protect and sustain.

Now things are different. US military power is no longer either unique or by itself sufficient to the needs of the noncommunist community.

Within recent days the NATO allies in Western Europe have been informed that they must increase substantially the capacity to defend themselves in the case of any new emergency. Until this spring they have counted on two US carrier battle groups remaining in the Mediterranean and three US divisions to be airlifted to Europe during the first ten days of an emergency. One carrier battle group has already been transferred to the Indian Ocean. The other might be needed either there or in the Pacific. Only one division, no longer three, will be available for reinforcing the European theater.

People who must undertake more of their own defense will naturally think more about their own diplomacy and strategy. US leadership was one thing when the US was putting up the largest proportion of weapons and men. Now that the US finds its interests endangered in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas and has less left over for the protection of Europe, the European will do precisely what they are doing, asserting their own leadership.

It is something of a shock in Washington to find the allies thinking and acting for themselves. It is inevitable. It is part of the shape of things to come.

In that shape now emerging the United States will be one among equals rather than the only "equal." More and more the West Europeans will be working out a collective approach to such problems as the Iranian hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Washington will find itself negotiating with them over alliance policy. The days of merely telling them what they are expected to do are over.

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