WHEN Americans think about conflict in the Middle East today, their thoughts center on ``secret'' arms deals and fighting that pits Arab against Persian, Arab against Arab, and Arab against Israeli. The chief rationale for United States interest and involvement in the region seems to be geopolitical - keeping the oil flowing and ensuring that our friends are secure from the Soviet influence and, of course, from each other. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of what was, and should continue to be, our overriding objective in the Middle East: promoting peace, not furthering fighting. We forget that, as long as peace remains elusive, there are no winners - only losers - in the Middle East.
Perhaps we forget because we live so far from the Middle East and tend to think of the conflict there in impersonal, conceptual terms. Even by reading the best newspapers and watching the most in-depth television coverage, it is impossible to grasp the magnitude of the costs that decades of strife have wrought. It is just this reality, however, and not intangible notions of geopolitics, that should drive US policy.
To bring this point closer to home, it is instructive to review some of the tremendous costs the peoples of the Middle East have borne over the past several decades. While conflict has been punishing on every country in the Middle East, Lebanon provides one of the most dramatic examples. Consider Lebanon before the outbreak of civil war in 1975:
Because of its prime location, Christian and Muslim population, and mercantile heritage, Lebanon was the recognized bridge between the West and the Middle East, the region's undisputed commercial and financial center.
Lebanon boasted one of the highest per capita levels of gross national product among developing countries, some $1,300 a year.
It had the highest literacy rate in the Arab world.
It developed a higher proportion of skilled labor than any other Arab country.
With a services sector already making up 70 percent of GNP, Lebanon was poised to boom at an unprecedented rate as the neighboring Gulf states' economies took off as a result of quadrupled oil prices.
Against this background, consider some of the heavy human and economic costs of 11 years of civil war:
The core of the Lebanese professional class, vital to economic activity and growth, has emigrated; 600,000 to 900,000 are estimated to have fled in 1975-76 alone.
By one estimate, the chief indicator of economic growth - GNP - declined 60 percent in real terms between 1974, when civil war ignited, and 1976. Even with the 1980 recovery, GNP that year represented only about 60 percent of the 1974 level.
Real GNP has declined steadily since the Israeli invasion, with industry now running at barely 40 percent of capacity. And with credit now virtually unobtainable, the chances of Lebanon's maintaining even present levels of economic activity are slim.
Lebanon's economic infrastructure - its housing, roads, telecommunication, and water supply systems - has been severely damaged. According to one estimate, it will require a 10-year investment of $1.2 billion a year to reconstruct the country.
Unfortunately, the almost incomprehensible level of human and economic losses in Lebanon are not unique in a Middle East that knows little peace.
But how could this be otherwise in a region where the leading industry is war? How could this be otherwise in a region where, when it comes to financing imports, national priorities are clear: War comes first, followed by staple foods, raw materials, and spare parts. As an Iraqi Cabinet minister recently put it, ``Development now comes second to the position of the war.''
``The war'' alluded to by the Iraqi minister is, of course, the tragic conflict between Iran and Iraq - a conflict that provides another mind-boggling example of wasted human and economic resources.
As if the loss of 250,000 lives isn't costly enough, Iranian authorities estimate that their economic losses for the first five years of the war totaled $309 billion - roughly $5 billion a month. Iraq, it would seem, is ``lucky'' by comparison: Only 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, and the Iraqi economy is drained of only $600 million to $1 billion a month to wage war against Iran.
To put these numbers in perspective, consider some comparisons. At a minimum, Iran and Iraq combined divert from their economies $15 billion to $16 billion a year to do battle - more than it would take to rebuild Lebanon, more than the World Bank will have lent countries around the world this year, and more than the US will have spent on its entire development and security assistance program this fiscal year.
To drive home even deeper the unacceptable costs of conflict, consider these additional statistics:
One of the principal measurements of military spending is how much a country devotes to arms in relations to its GNP. In the last 20 years, Egypt is the only Middle Eastern country in which defense expenditures have been reduced as a percentage of GNP. Israel's military spending ratio has increased nearly threefold over the period, to some 30 percent of GNP; increases of similar proportion have taken place in Iran and Iraq.
During the most recent period for which data are available, 1979-83, the Middle East received 39 percent of all arms transferred around the globe, making it the world's largest regional arms market.
Saudi Arabia last year spent over $2 billion - the equivalent of 10 percent of its oil revenues - supporting Iraqi war efforts. At the same time the kingdom's own important foreign assistance programs were slashed.
Even with more than $4 billion in United States economic and military assistance last year, Israel's heavy emphasis on military spending and defense requirements continued to bust its budget. At times last year, Israeli inflation - now under much better control - hit some 1,000 percent on an annual basis.
We should not stand in judgment of specific countries in reviewing these incredible figures. Rather, we should be reminded of the saying ``War does not determine who is right - only who is left.'' Our purpose should be to help the parties reason together and support efforts toward peace.
That goal, thanks in large part to the determined efforts of US officials like Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, is closer at hand today in Egypt and Israel than it has been since the last summit, in 1981. The ``cold peace'' is over. The Mubarak-Peres summit in September provided hope for further progress, particularly on the Palestinian question. On the Israeli side, Shimon Peres has turned over the mantel of the peace process to Yitzhak Shamir. With the prospects for wider peace and progress close at hand, the situation more than ever requires strong US leadership and vision.
Which raises the question of the costs to the US of the continuing conflict in the Middle East. The annual bill for US economic and military aid to the region, primarily to Israel and Egypt, is, of course, overwhelming - 34 percent of our overall development and security assistance budget is devoted to these two countries alone.
Ironically, after viewing the problems the Senate had in September approving $200 million in additional aid to the Philippines, some wonder whether the US can afford to foot the bill that Middle East peace would require.
The most tangible fruit of the US's many labors for peace in the Middle East has been Camp David. Our total economic and military aid to Egypt in the 15 years (1962-77) preceding Camp David was $2.9 billion; our annual assistance level to Egypt is now almost that high.
Has the investment been worthwhile? Without a doubt. And we must recognize that any future assistance to other countries central to the peace process - Jordan being the prime example - will be worth the price, compared with the potential loss of priceless human life.
Whether we like it or not, the peace process and arms sales - sales of defensive arms to our proven friends - are linked. Just as violating our stated policy of neutrality in the Gulf war hurt us immeasurably, the Senate's refusal to supply arms to Arab friends diminishes our ability to help move the peace process forward. This forces our friends to turn to other suppliers.
In fact, one estimate suggests that lost arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia and Jordan cost the US economy a minimum of $20 billion. Using a Department of Commerce formula, this translates into a loss of 500,000 to 600,000 American jobs. Arms sales aside, another expert estimates that we have lost a mimimum of 400,000 and probably closer to 700,000 jobs because of forfeited trade opportunities in the Middle East - lost because of blocked sales to Saudi Arabia and other policy-related constraints on trade.
These costs pale in comparison with the unthinkable human losses. Sophocles said that ``war loves to seek its victims in the young.'' The young have suffered the most from the Middle East conflict.
Achieving peace is not just in the hands of leaders thousands of miles away in the Middle East, but in our hands as well.
Charles H. Percy, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heads an international trade consulting firm in Washington.