In the effort to create a workable American policy in the Middle East, it has always been difficult to determine where hope ends and delusion begins. Hope is justified if currents of common interest appear to be converging and the proper application of diplomacy and pressure can bring them together.
Policies, on the other hand, generate delusion when, because of ideology or a tendency to hear from friends only what we want to hear, our policies are incompatible with a realistic assessment of the forces at work.
While outside observers are not privy to all the information available to the government, it is nevertheless difficult for someone familiar with the Middle East to avoid the feeling that we are deluding ourselves about the possible success of our present course.
Four assumptions on which we appear to be operating seem highly questionable.
1.That Syria will ultimately accept the May 17 agreement between Lebanon and Israel if only the United States applies sufficient pressure.
Arranged apparently without consultation with Syria, this agreement runs counter to all assessments of Syrian policies and objectives. It represents to Syria a ''separate peace'' with Israel by an Arab state. It fails to address the question of the Golan Heights. It supports a Lebanese government seen in Syrian eyes as representing only one faction.
2.That moderate Arabs, seeing the growing balance of forces against Syria, will now step forward to discuss peace with Israel. The so-called moderate Arabs are conservative, not because their basic views on Israel may be markedly different from those of the more radical states, but because they are basically cautious.
As the history of the area has shown, that caution makes them apprehensive about any negotiation with Israel not supported by all other Arab states; under circumstances of tension in the area, they are even more likely to look to their own safety. It is not hard for them to draw conclusions from the fate of Abdullah, Gemayel, and Sadat.
3.That President Reagan's statement of Sept. 1, 1982, is still a realistic basis for negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza. That statement, intended as a plea for negotiations and a statement of an American position, became, in the twisting currents of Middle East politics, an American ''plan,'' rejected by Israel and qualified by the Arabs.
As time has passed, the Israelis are more and more through their settlement policy resolving the West Bank problem unilaterally. It is difficult to find a basis for hope that the Sept. 1 initiative can be revived.
4.That Israel will pull the chestnuts of the United States out of the fire in Lebanon. Israel has its own politics and its own objectives. It depends heavily on the US, but, with its own security in mind, it will not give way on some basic issues. The administration, for example, had clearly hoped that, by offering Israel substantial concessions on security cooperation, that nation could be persuaded to reduce its opposition to US military cooperation in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. There is little indication that that has happened.
This is not to say that troop withdrawal from Lebanon, the cooperation of the moderate Arabs, a comprehensive peace, or cooperation with Israel are unattainable or unworthy goals. Each obviously must be achieved in some measure if there is to be a restoration of peace in Lebanon and the region.
In the long history of efforts to resolve the conflicts in this area, however , proposals become known, not for their substance, but for their names: Partition, the Rogers Plan, Camp David, the Reagan Plan. Each becomes a symbol of rejection and political anathema to at least one significant party.
We delude ourselves if we believe that, by insisting on May 17 or Sept. 1 and pressing either Syria or Israel to accept proposals under rejected labels, we can accomplish our objectives.
Each positive step in the Middle East has been built on the rejections of the past, discarding labels and framing something new. If, therefore, there is to be hope that our marines can be withdrawn honorably, that the old men of Lebanon will get together, and that a new process of peace can begin, we must put aside assumptions based on unpopular labels of the past and try, through new negotiations, however difficult they may be, to create new and, possibly, more hopeful approaches.