IN two Arab countries today, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, militant opposition groups pose potential threats to the interests of the United States. The situation raises a familiar diplomatic dilemma: How can US embassy officers learn more about these groups without direct contacts with movement leaders?
Arguments in favor of such contacts are many. When possible threats to major US interests are involved, the knowledge gained can assist in evaluating those threats. Foundations can be laid for future relationships in the event the opposition comes to power.
In nations where a regime may be widely unpopular, meetings with known opponents can suggest to the local population that Washington is not totally committed to supporting that regime.
The government in power and its friends, abroad and in the US, will argue that the US can learn all it needs to know from official sources and that any other efforts represent interference in internal affairs. They will express the fear that opposition groups will exploit any meetings to imply external endorsement, thus undermining the existing regime's authority. And they will cast doubt on whether such groups, especially if they have an anti-American bias, will provide information or comment of any val ue. Each of the concerns is valid.
Differences obviously exist from country to country. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not the only countries in the Arab world in which the status quo is threatened by extremist movements. But the US has important, if not vital, interests in those two countries. Recent low-level meetings between US diplomats and Islamic groups in both countries have generated concern in Riyadh, Cairo, and Washington. In the case of Egypt, Washington has had to explain that such meetings were "inadvertent."
The problem is long-lived. Active efforts to learn more about the Chinese Communist opponents of the Chiang Kai-shek regime ruined the careers of several US foreign service officers who pursued the contacts.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Shah of Iran, questions were asked in Washington about why the US had not attempted to meet with representatives of the Ayatollah Komeini. The answer lay in the strong opposition of the Shah to any diplomatic meetings with religious leaders, Carter administration concern that contacts could be misconstrued, and the reliance of US intelligence on the Shah's secret police, SAVAK.
Why should the US probe independently into the political affairs of a friendly government? The reason lies in experience in many areas where governments friendly to the US have been overthrown and Washington has been surprised. Iraq, Libya, and Ethiopia are examples.
The threatened regimes either were not candid about their vulnerabilities or were unaware of them. What they did share was designed largely to convince the US that the regime was strong, popular, and secure.
Why can't US intelligence agencies assume the task of meeting with opposition leaders and relieve the diplomat of the vulnerability and criticism of such actions?
The clandestine intelligence approach has disadvantages. Revelation of US intelligence activities unknown to the local government can generate stronger suspicions and protests than overt meetings with embassy officers.
Representatives of the US media frequently meet with militant opposition leaders in key countries. But, given the professional reluctance of journalists to share information with government sources, and because opposition figures are conscious that they are speaking to a public audience, such meetings are not satisfactory substitutes for official encounters.
Whatever the country, it remains highly desirable for the US to find the means of knowing directly the character and objectives of key opposition groups.
Accomplishing this in countries where Washington has substantial interests continues to be one of the most difficult balancing acts in diplomacy.