The failure of the Soviet Union to evince support for the beleaguered PLO and Syrian forces during the early stages of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon reflects mutual Soviet-Arab disenchantment. Will the United States be able to take advantage of this?
Key Arab governments which enjoy close relationships with the Soviets, such as Syria and Iraq, have become increasingly irked by Soviet-imposed limits on arms shipments and by Soviet refusal to make binding military commitments. This has applied, for example, to Iraq in the context of the Iraqi-Iranian war and, most recently, to Syria in the framework of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in very substantial losses of Soviet military equipment.
For its part the Soviet Union has become increasingly fed up with these so-called Arab ''clients'' because of their independence of action -- including their persistent rejection of Soviet input into their decisionmaking -- and their continued cold-shouldering of indigenous communists. This applies to the main PLO leadership (al-Fatah) as well as to Syria and Iraq.
It was, of course, not always so. In the mid 1950s opportunities for the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East, following Gamal Abdel Nasser's dramatic turn to Russia, seemed to be limitless. These opportunities flowed from a number of factors.
The first was the initiation of a US policy of providing substantial political and military support to Israel, at the expense of US-Arab relations. And, conversely, the Soviet Union offered full support for the Arab cause vis-a-vis Israel.
The second factor was the Soviet undertaking to provide arms with no political strings attached in contrast with restrictions imposed by the US on the use of arms it sold to an Arab government.
The third factor was lingering, deep-seated Arab resentment over Western colonialism as it had impinged on the Middle East, which made the record of Soviet nonintervention in the area look well by comparison.
The fourth factor was the appeal in the 1950s and 1960s of leftist, pseudo-Marxist ideologies as the hoped-for panacea for the ills of Arab society and the coming to power in certain Arab countries of regimes that subscribed to these ideologies. So-called ''Arab socialism'' became the name of the game.
And, finally, though these regimes claimed to advocate freedom (as in the case of the Baath party) or democratic principles (as indicated in the name for the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen), in fact they were dictatorships which patterned themselves on the Soviet totalitarian model.
Thus, in the 1950s Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, in the 1960s, Libya and the Yemens all cozied up to the Soviets. Within a year or so after becoming independent in 1961, Kuwait established relations with the USSR - opening the Persian Gulf to the Soviets for the first time.
By the 1970s and the 1980s, however, countervailing focus came into play and the prospects that had looked so rosy for the Soviets began to dim. Why?
First, because the Soviets failed to reckon with an irrepressible urge: the urge of each nation to remain independent. The Arab governments that had welcomed Soviet support and close cooperation fiercely resisted Soviet efforts to interfere. With perhaps one exception (South Yemen) they made clear that they weren't about to be manipulated by the Soviets.
Second, because the Soviet brand of socialism lost its appeal as heavy injections of it failed to remedy the ills of Arab society. In fact, Arab economics became worse off than they had been under the much maligned entrepreneurialism.
Third, because the Soviets sometimes acted heavy-handedly and occasionally bumbled. It is possible that the Soviets were fundamentally just incapable of capitalizing on their opening advantages. In any case, bitter Arab experience with the USSR over the years dispelled earlier illusions about them.
Fourth, because it finally dawned on the Arabs that if they wanted an Arab-Israeli peace settlement on reasonable terms -- which the Arab consensus has now come around to seeking -- it wasn't the Soviet superpower which could be instrumental in producing it. Only the US superpower had the potential to deliver Israel in such a settlement.
Fifth, because the Arabs as a whole came to realize that they really had very little in common with the Soviets. The Arabs are individualistic; they will not be pressed into a mold. In general, they have not related well to the Soviets, products of a rigid, closed society, who, in any case, usually keep to themselves.
Also, those Arab governments that availed themselves of Soviet technology came to understand the hard way its inferiority to Western technology. The Syrian government, for example, has granted concessions only to American oil companies in the last six years. And the Arabs wanted American not Soviet education. Syrian Baathists prefer to send their sons and daughters to the US, rather than to the USSR, for a college education. Finally, free enterprise is in the Arab blood.
Sixth, Saudi Arabia -- the USSR's and communism's principal opponent in the area -- has now assumed the mantle of leadership both in the Arab and Islamic worlds and thus it is in good position to influence those Soviet ''clients.''
On the other side of the coin, among the reasons for the Soviet disenchantment with Arab states have been:
* Sadat's precipitate expulsion of Soviet advisers in the early 1970s after years of a close relationship. While Mubarak has eased slightly Sadat's policies of making Egypt off limits to the Soviets, he hasn't allowed more than 50 or 60 Soviet advisers to return to Egypt -- fewer by the way than were in Iran during the Shah's time.
* Syria's entry into Lebanon in 1976 over strong Soviet objections and its sudden mobilization of troops along the Jordanian border two weeks after the signing of its friendship treaty with the Soviets in the fall of 1980 without either informing or consulting with the Soviets, before or after.
* Iraq's ignoring of Soviet objections to launching a war against Iran and its severe treatment of Iraqi communists.
* Algeria's turning away, under President Chazli Ben Chadid, from a previous close Soviet embrace.
* The continued refusal of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar to permit a diplomatic Soviet presence.
* The mercurial and unpredictable behavior of one of the Soviet's supposedly best clients, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, with whom the Soviets cannot be fully at ease.
This mutual Soviet-Arab disenchantment offers the US an excellent opportunity to improve its position in the Arab world and to check Soviet advances without recourse to a military-type ''strategic consensus.'' Unfortunately, however, America's inability thus far to curb Israel's expansionist policies -- as reflected in the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and of the Golan Heights, its de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and its invasion of Lebanon -- ties its hands.
Unless the United States reverses these Israeli policies and moves effectively to resolving the Palestine problem, the core issue, we will find the Arabs becoming as disenchanted with the US as they have become with the Soviets - and probably more so. This would represent another missed opportunity for the US, leading to an erosion of US interests in the area and enabling the Soviets to bounce back from adversity in their relations with the Arabs.
It is to be hoped that the new secretary of state, George Shultz, understands this and that he can persuade the President to do what is necessary to capitalize on the current Arab-Soviet disenchantment.