Amid the general concern fostered by the media after the dispatch of a military training group to El Salvador, the US public seems quite unaware that its government is under strong foreign pressure to send a force of 4,000 soldiers to police the Egyptian-Israeli border beginning next year.
The Americans, in addition to providing the manpower, would also defray the considerable costs of this mission, for which the terms of reference -- status of the force, duration of its mission, etc. -- have not been fixed. The force, which would be heavily armed, would replace the small civilian observer group now in Sinai. No one in Washington can describe the support package (medics, PXs, commissaries, schools) that ordinarily accompanies a force that size.
This military unit was first described by Prime Minister Begin, its originator, as "multinational" in character. That concept was accepted by the Carter administration at the request of Israel, supported by Egypt; but, like other aspects of the Camp David "Peace Treaty," the controversial nature of the proposal was apparently not scrutinized carefully before President Carter consented to it.
That commitment may soon become a source of major embarrassment for President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig because it now appears that the "multinational" feature of the force is definitely fading in the face of severe opposition, both regional and worldwide.
Let us review the original Israeli stipulations: Mr. Begin convinced Mr. Carter that such a force is indispensable; Mr. Begin wanted it organized by the United States; the United Nations should not be involved; no permanent member of the Security Council (except the US) should contribute to it; and, if opposition arose in the UN or elsewhere, the US government would itself undertake to organize the force.
The Soviets, who were prominent on the Israeli list of those Mr. Begin did not desire as participants, have made it clear that they would veto any such proposal in the Security Council. The Arab/Islamic nations and an overwhelming majority of the third world have multitudinous objections. Even the Egyptians are markedly reticent about having a foreign force of that size and power in position on their border with Israel.
Thus, when opposition to his project became evident, Mr. Begin was well prepared: he reacted by sending his foreign minister, Mr. Shamir, to Washington to remind Mr. Reagan and Mr. Haig that Mr. Carter had made a commitment, and he invited their attention to the fact that the force must be in position on the Sinai border about one year from now. Mr. Haig listened to Mr. Shamir and sent an official of the Middle East bureau of the State Department to Jerusalem and Cairo where he, too, listened while steering clear of substance.
In this situation, everything will depend on Mr. Reagan's and Mr. Haig's perception of US priorities in that region and American public reaction. They are aware that, at a time when the small training group the US has in El Salvador is causing concern at home, Israel is expecting the US to muster, equip , and sustain a battle-ready force 80 times larger and to place it in a very dangerous part of the world. As noted, no time limit has been fixed for the duration of its stay.
All this begs more than one question: Why is an American force needed to maintain order there? Did not the Israelis and Egyptians recently sign a peace treaty? Why do they not make their own arrangements to police their border?
Experts agree that the placing of a large US military force on the Sinai border before reaching solutions to the problems of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights would sound the death knell for our hope of negotiating base facilities elsewhere in Southwest Asia and other Muslim areas. Any attempt to brush past issues vital to all Arab states will ensure that our search for "facilities" will fail. The key to positive results in that respect lies in tackling first the difficult matter of the Israeli-Arab dispute. There is no way around that necessity.
Those in Washington who are advocating the use of Etzion and Ras Banas in the Sinai by the US rapid deployment force should ponder the lessons of history. Foreign bases in the Arab world have caused the disappearances of dynasties, republics, dictatorships, and colonial powers alike: Nasser acquired the respect and admiration of the Egyptian people by forcing the British to lower their flag at Suez; Sadat achieved fame among the Arabs when he evicted the Soviets; Kassem rallied the Iraqis by promising to chase the British Air Force out of Habbaniyah and by destroying the British political structure in Iraq . . . while killing the King, crown prince, and prime minister in the process.
And, what proved to be Libyan leader Qaddafi's greatest assets in his lunge for power but the American air base near Tripoli, and his vow to subjugate the oil companies. In acquiring those interests there, the US paid little attention to the hopes and problems of the Libyan people.
The proper priorities are important. If they are not carefully determined, the next officer who emerges from the Egyptian Army in a bid for power will also find a ready-made issue of exactly the same nature that his predecessors in other lands found so advantageous.