Beirut — In one Arab capital, the American diplomat looked up at the high, Ottoman ceiling of the embassy and said with a sigh: "This can't be good for Arab-American relations."
But pressed after the recent Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor on what specifically Arab leaders might do that would hurt the United States in the short run, the diplomat drew a blank.
In another capital, an Arab strategist pondered the same question while gazing out the office-tower window at the city below: "The Israelis have caused a great blow to US interests."
Then he wrinkled his brow, speculated awhile, and concluded: "It will be mild now. In the long run, maybe not so mild."
The best indicator of immediate Arab- American fallout over the raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor came during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in baghdad June 11 and 12. A call went out by the 21 Arab foreign ministers for worldwide economic and political boycott of Israel and for United Nations sanctions against it.
Arab watchers virtually rule out collective Arab retaliatory military action against the Israelis. But some of them say Iraq, acting alone, might try a desperate form of military retaliation against Israel; they say this would have little chance of success.
The only real avenues left open in the short run, they believe are economic and political -- and not against Israel, where these measures long ago reached their limit, but against the US as Israel's patron. Yet analysis of the most likely economic and political measures shows that they, too, are severely constrained.
What then will the Arabs do?
The answer depends largely on Saudi Arabia. So far there has been only a murmur of disapproval from Kin Khalid. An Arab analyst who is well informed on Saudi affairs says he believes there is little enthusiasm in the kingdom for anti-American measures.
But in the long run, two events he sees as inevitable in Saudi strategy may be accelerated:
1. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait may begin to tighten the oil surplus and raise prices (even before next winter's OPEC meeting).
2. Saudi Arabia may openly and seriously move toward establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow -- a maneuver hinted at and offically denied by the Saudis last week.
But there are problems in both areas. A significant amount of revenue from the extra Saudi-Kuwaiti oil production is being channeled to Iraq, which needs it in its war effort against Iran. A cutback could only come if the war is settled or at least dies down.
Closer relations with Russia would mean a trade-off. The Saudis have been demanding that Russian soldiers leave Afghanistan and North Yemen. The Soviets show no signs of flexibility in these areas.
"I don't think the Saudis are prepared to bo on an Iraqi crusade," this analyst says. "Had the Iraqis produced nuclear bombs, it would have given Saddam Hussein control of the Arabian Gulf for the next decade. And that is not in Saudi interest."
If Riyadh ever considered giving the US a permanent base in the Middle East, this analyst says, the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear plant will probably set back approval of such an action. But he believes the Saudis still see the Soviet Union as a threat to the Gulf and still desire American military presence in the region.
"It is difficult to imagine how the Arabs can harm Israel militarily more than the harm it has done to itself politically," an Arab commentator wrote in the Beirut-based Middle East Reporter.
Observers note the long-run effect is likely to be more distance between moderate Arabs and Washington and a greater possibility of oil-producing Arabs, primarily the Saudis, taking a harder view of the West -- thus ev entually affecting oil supply and prices.