It's time for a new US Middle East policy

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THE raging debate in Washington and elsewhere, over the Iran-arms deal should be an opportunity to rethink the United States strategic posture in the Middle East. Indeed, the episode has revealed a major problem of US Middle East policy: the lack of an initiative based on a clear strategic conception. For four years, the administration has been content with a policy of damage control or crisis containment - bordering on ``benign neglect'' - with regard to the three major spots of tension in the region, the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanon crisis, and the Palestinian problem. Indeed, the administration's policy on terrorism was an example of focusing on the manifestation of the problem rather than the underlying sources of the conflict. The arms deal, though ill conceived and poorly carried out, was at least a break from the passive policy that the administration has adopted for four years. No doubt the US should not ignore an important country like Iran. There is a definite need for an initiative toward the moderate elements in Tehran. But in the absence of a regional strategic conception such an initiative might have been more damaging than useful.

First, it underlined the credibility gap that US policy has been suffering from in the Middle East. Not only did it embarrass Arab friends of the US - in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere - but it also confirmed their worst fears that the US is following Israeli strategy in the region. Indeed, the arms deal has blurred the distinction - at least in the Arab minds - between the Israeli and American agenda for the region.

Second, although the arms deal itself might not radically alter the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, it gives a signal to other countries to pursue arms sales to Iran. Indeed, the US ability to control and constrain arms flows to Iran from both official and unofficial sources - even black market supplies - has been severely curtailed. That will lead to both the escalation and prolongation of the war, which might lead to an unhappy scenario for the entire Gulf region, and probably be damaging, if not disastrous, for Western interests. More important than the damage to the military balance of power, Iraqi officials are concerned about the political balance of power. The deal has given a moral boost to the Iranian regime. A continuous US tilt toward Iran would be very serious for Iraq, which is one-third of the geographic size of Iran and has a much smaller population base.

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On the other hand, the episode should be an opportunity for rethinking the US strategic posture in the Middle East and the prospects for regional order. The US policy of standing on the sideline in the Middle East has not paid off. Indeed, a deescalation of the threat to US interests can hardly be expected without a major US initiative that would aim at creating a momentum toward the settlement of the major raging conflicts in the region:

There is a need now to announce an initiative toward the settlement of the Iran-Iraq war. The US can now claim some credit with the Iranian regime and can put it to good use. The Reagan administration can mount an international campaign to halt the war and to propose a settlement. Other countries, including the Soviet Union, will follow, thus, transferring the conflict from the realms of superpower competition to a subject of cooperation. An arms embargo and offer of economic and humanitarian assistance for the rebuilding of the two devastated countries can be on the top of the list of incentives offered by the world community and sponsored by the US and its allies.

The US should now venture again to propose a program for the rebuilding of Lebanon. That country should not be left as the ground floor for raging civil war and political violence. Indeed, several Arab and European countries will extend a hand. The majority of the Lebanese themselves will be the first to support such efforts. Indeed, the call for creating neutral Lebanese forces under United Nations sponsorship has been a common denominator for the parties concerned. But the US should take bold steps toward liberating Lebanon from external forces and assisting the Lebanese factions in rebuilding a stable political and economic system, through a massive international aid campaign. In fact, the Western countries and Japan, which benefited the last two years from the sharp decline in oil prices, should be able to contribute to such an initiative, which will lead to stability and the deescalation of political violence in the region.

The US should now reactivate its peace efforts with regard to the Palestinian problem, which has been at the crux of the Middle East conflict for decades. The Reagan administration should pick up the pieces of its stalled peace initiative of 1982 and put renewed vigor into it. The US can guide all parties, including the Israelis and the Palestinians, toward dialogue.

A bold, statesmanlike initiative by President Reagan would not only dampen the internal recrimination raging in Washington, but would also create a momentum toward peace that would channel the energy of the frustrated forces in the vast Middle East toward a more useful goal.

Hamdi A. W. Saleh is a counselor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Cairo.

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