Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A week of Middle East alarum bells, Western economic wrangling

By Joseph C. Harsch / May 13, 1983



This has been a week of alarum bells in the Middle East and economic anxieties (probably more serious) within the Western community of nations. The Soviets underlined their concern about the Middle East and sent a warning signal to Washington and Tel Aviv, by pulling out of Lebanon 110 women and children dependents of Soviet diplomats based in Beirut.

Skip to next paragraph

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State George Shultz went to Paris to meet with leaders of the Western economic system and relearned how unhappy America's trading partners are about the main features of Reagan economic policies.

Mr. Shultz was still pushing for a campaign of economic sanctions against the Soviet Union. European opposition is as solid as ever. And Mr. Shultz defended as best he could President Reagan's domestic economic policies. The partners want above all a decline in high US interest rates. They think the present high rates can ruin economic recovery both in the United States and in Europe.

In Washington, the White House this week was deferring to the European allies and congressional critics on another matter. President Reagan reviewed the US position on arms control talks and promised to present new American proposals that might prove interesting in Moscow.

The sudden, unexpected, and startling departure of the Soviet women and children from Beirut coincided with news that Soviet Communist Party leader Yuri Andropov has taken on a second role as chairman of the Defense Council. In effect this makes him commander in chief of all Soviet armed forces. It follows reports that there are now between 4,000 and 5,000 Soviet troops in Syria, some of them manning and controlling antiaircraft batteries.

It coincided also with reports that Syria has been increasing its troop strength in Lebanon and is now up to between 35,000 and 40,000 Syrian soldiers, supported by another 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It seems unlikely that Syria has any thought of attacking Israel. But Syria could be worried about the possibility of a sudden Israeli attack. It sees Israel as in a better military position to attack now than it would be if Israeli main forces are withdrawn from Lebanon under the terms of the Lebanon-Israel agreement. And the danger remains of some local clash mushrooming into a full-fledged battle.

The Soviet pullout of dependents from Beirut probably flowed from a mixture of motives. One of these could be a warning to both the US and Israel that the Soviets would be directly involved in any all-out Israeli-Syrian fighting. This would make a difference. During the 1982 fighting in Lebanon, Syrians manned the antiaircraft missile batteries which the Israelis knocked out. The Soviets have replaced all those ruined batteries with new Soviet surface-to-air missiles and manned them with their own people. Moscow is taking and playing a hand this time in the Mideast game.

The gathering of the representatives of the Western economic community in Paris underlined one thing above all. There is great joy over the signs of economic recovery in America, but doubt that it will be sustained unless President Reagan in Washington can be persuaded to change economic course.

The change wanted by the European partners, and in Washington by a number of leading Republicans as well as by many Democrats, is for a shift in priority from arms building to budget balancing.

The continuation of deficit financing means continued high interest rates. High US interest rates draw investment capital out of Europe. Europe needs this capital for its economic recovery. Mr. Reagan is wedded to tax cutting and a big arms program. The combination means deficit financing and high interest rates.

The leaders of the economic community are to meet in Williamsburg in late May for another in their series of economic ''summits.'' The White House had hoped that this time the European partners would fall into line on economic sanctions against Moscow, and on general economic cooperation. The prospects are unpromising.