Boston — SIC transit gloria Gulf. Roughly translated, that means: so passes public fixation on the Gulf war, the American oil-escort fleet, remaining hostages, the Mideast in general. With a summit and Christmas coming on, with the dollar still heading toward the center of the earth, Americans may be excused for turning their attention from a topic that has been so hot in the news media this fall. Headline fatigue has taken its toll. It's understandable that the Reagan-Gorbachev chemistry, the style and utterances of Raisa Gorbachev, and the scramble of Congress to do something about the deficit before Christmas will grab public attention.
But it's unfortunate that the switch of focus obscures some very interesting changes in the Mideast/Afghanistan equation.
Strategically, there are at least three main purposes for Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Washington, and one of them involves the Mideast/Afghanistan.
First, it is clear that the Soviet leader needs a summit success to regenerate support for his leadership and reform plans at home.
Second, he needs to cultivate Congress and future American leadership. Especially, a bipartisan group of those who will wield influence in the post-Reagan era.
Mr. Gorbachev can negotiate toward a mid-1988 summit with President Reagan in Moscow to cut long-range nuclear missiles. But, beyond that, he will need workable relations with Mr. Reagan's successors if he is to bargain further on trade relations, on the pace of the ``star wars'' missile defense era, and on other arms issues.
Having the conservative evil-empire skeptic sign the first missile-destruction treaty gives Gorbachev and the next American president (of either party) a protective shield for talking about further deals. But the Soviet leader needs to cultivate the congressional leaders who, for instance, may one day have to vote on dismantling the Jackson-Vanik barrier against US trade with Moscow. In that pursuit, he will be helped if he shows a willingness to help efforts for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and between Iran and Iraq.
So - third - he and Reagan share a need to do something about those Mideast questions. Also to talk further about their differences on Central America, Afghanistan, Angola, and Vietnam-Cambodia.
Why should the Soviet boss want to end the Gulf war? Why should he relieve pressure on America's allies - Europe and Japan - which depend on oil from the Gulf? There are several reasons. Almost unnoticed, the nature of the Gulf war changed last month from a bitter struggle between Iran and Iraq to a larger replay of the ancient struggle between the Arab world and Persia.
This makes it more difficult for Moscow to continue the balancing act in which it has posed as a friend of all the parties: of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Arabs all the way to Libya and Algeria.
If Moscow helped Washington bring pressure to end the Gulf war, it could continue to cultivate the Arabs and please its West European neighbors who depend on oil from the Gulf. It also might win widespread Islamic backing for a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan.
The change in the Gulf struggle began with Iran's propagandizing and provoking of riots in the holiest Islamic shrine of Mecca last August. That made it difficult for Muslim fundamentalists in Arab nations to continue their support for Khomeini-brand fundamentalism.
In short, Khomeini agents no longer enjoy a leading role in Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world (or in such Islamic nations as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.)
This change in allegiances was ratified Nov. 11 at the Arab summit in Amman, Jordan, where King Hussein played an adroit role in patching up two inter-Arab quarrels. First, many Arab states mended relations with Egypt, ending a break caused by Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Second, Hussein helped bring about improvement of Syria's long-embittered relations with Iraq. The King's fence-mending there followed several rounds of quiet talks between Iraqi and Syrian officials in Damascus.
Syria had given Iran tacit support in the Gulf war. By switching its public support to Iraq, it creates a solid front of Arab Muslims (except Libya) against Persian Muslims. This shift is likely to bring about changes in Lebanon. Already pro-Khomeini groups there have tried to demonstrate their disapproval of the Syrian switch. If they continue to do so, Syria's President Assad may move to occupy the strongholds of the hizbullah resistance and clean out what Western nations see as major sources of terrorism and hostage-taking.
This change in the Mideast landscape should not be overestimated. There are brakes that work against rapid change. For one thing, chances for serious progress between Israel and its Arab neighbors will probably have to await the outcome of elections next year in America, Israel, Lebanon, and France.
This means that efforts to arrange a cease-fire and peace in the Gulf war and Afghanistan are likely to be pressed before, and separate from, any new international effort on the Arab-Israel-Palestine problem.
Gorbachev has shown his anxiety on Afghanistan for many months now. United Nations diplomats who have carried on quiet talks with Moscow and the Afghan rebels feel they have made progress at narrowing differences.
Gorbachev's goal seems to be to return to the kind of neutral Afghan government within the Soviet trade sphere which existed before the Kremlin intervention in 1979. The Afghan rebels also take the UN talks seriously, although they are not likely to see an eventual neutral government as falling too tightly within Moscow's economic sphere.
The fact that Soviet veterans of the Afghan war are now allowed to organize openly and seek public awareness is the latest indication that the Soviet leader may be preparing Moscow for a change.
During his Washington visit we may see whether he is also willing to cooperate on ending the Iran-Iraq war.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.