The 1983 diplomatic year opened over the past week to a scene of policy disorder in Washington. By contrast, Moscow's new leader, Yuri Andropov, had his act in hand and was obviously ready for the important negotiations which lie ahead.Skip to next paragraph
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Two vital matters are on the international agenda - arms limitations and the Middle East. Arms talks are scheduled to resume in Geneva at the end of the month. Middle East talks are under way now between Lebanon and Israel, with the United States also at the table.
In both cases the Soviets have a clear position and are working toward their purposes. In both cases there is the absence of an agreed Washington position and hence the absence of ability to push firmly ahead.
Typical of the Washington situation is unresolved controversy over whether the US is to negotiate seriously over the kinds of middle-range nuclear weapons for basing in Europe.
US chief negotiator, Paul Nitze, was back in Washington to get his final instructions, but his superior officer, Eugene Rostow, was embroiled in a struggle over personnel and policy in his agency which made his own tenure uncertain. He talked of resigning. Until that issue is resolved there is no chance of arriving at a strategy for talks with the Soviets.
The same disorder applies to US policy on the Middle East. Here is a case where US declaratory policy simply cannot be implemented. It is declaratory US policy to seek the early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and thus clear the way for broader negotiations aimed at a Palestinian political entity on the West Bank.
But the talks between Israelis and Lebanese over Israeli troop withdrawals have been going on since Dec. 28 and have been tied in a knot largely by an Israeli demand that ''normalization'' of relations between the two countries take precedence over troop withdrawal.
During the first weeks and more, the Israeli position prevented even an agreement on the agenda. During that time the Israelis continued steady building of new Jewish dwellings on the occupied Arab lands of the West Bank in defiance of President Reagan's request for a halt. The building is at the rate of about 50 units on average per week. The announced goal is to increase the number of Israeli settlers in occupied Arab territory to 100,000 persons by 1985. The more settlers the less chance that declaratory US policy can ever be implemented.
Behind the story of Israel's defiance of the American President is the fact that Washington is divided between those who would like to restrain Israel and obtain a peace according to the Camp David formula and, on the other hand, those who favor letting Israel complete the virtual annexation of the occupied Arab territories. The latter dominate operating policy. The de facto annexation policy is in fact being subsidized by Congress while the President preaches the contrary declaratory policy.
This situation leaves an open road for the Soviets toward the Arab countries. If Mr. Reagan cannot restrain Israeli annexation of Arab land, then Moscow becomes more attractive to those who want help against the annexation. Last week the Syrians were reported to have set up new Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries.
Moscow has no problem about helping Arabs against Israel. If it wants to help them, it can and does.