Arab states and policymakers are moving cautiously on the Afghan issue. Nearly all Arab governments have issued routine condemnations of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but so far only Egypt and Oman have openly offered facilities for any future military response by the West.
The other Arab states, including most of those in closest proximity to the Afghan theater, have held back for two major reasons:
* They are apprehensive that any further buildup of tension in the vital Gulf region could interrupt the flow of oil on which their economies are almost totally dependent.
* They feel unable to commit themselves totally to the Western cause so long as the West does not appear to be exerting effective pressure on the Palestine issue.
This logic appears to obtain particularly in the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, which might otherwise have been expected to spearhead efforts of local powers against the Soviets' action.
"But the Saudis are unable to make any move," commented one Gulf state national. "Once again, the West has placed them in an impossible position, just like Camp David."
The dilemma of the Saudis was what foreign ministers of the hard-line Arab "steadfastness front" were trying to point up in a recent appeal to hold the forthcoming Islamic ministerial meeting on the Afghan issue in Saudi Arabia rather than Pakistan.
The "steadfast" ministers, representing Syria, Libya, Algeria, South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation organization, also wanted the Islamic meeting postponed from Jan. 26. That is the date for the opening of the Egyptian-Israeli border -- and the hard-line ministers are afraid the Islamic meeting might distract attention from this further sign of President Sadat's "treachery."
Two members of the steadfastness front, Syria and South Yemen, are the only Arab states to have expressed support (guarded) for the Soviets in Agfhanistan.
Tiny, Marxist South Yemen already offers the Soviet Navy facilities at the giant port in Aden, whose strategic value in the Arabian Sea region was clearly recognized by the British, until they evacuated it in 1967.
Syria, farther from the main arena of present strife, plays host to some 6, 000 military and civilian advisers from the East bloc, but Muslim dissidents have forced them to keep a low profile. (Muslim terrorists assassinated two Soviet military specialists in the northern city of Hama, Jan. 15, maintaining a five-year-old traditional of such actions.)
The prospect of this Soviet presence in the Arab east being beefed up is understood to cause concern to policymakers in Iraq, the large, highly centralized state at the head of the Gulf.
The Iraqis have edged away from their former alliance with the Soviets, and now deny that the Soviet Navy has any facilities in the two Iraqi naval bases in the Shatt al-Arab.
Their present stand toward growing superpower concern over the Gulf is "a plague on both your houses." The Baghdad government daily Al-Thawra has hit out at Western plans to give massive military aid to the pro-Western Sultan of tiny Oman, saying it is the same "so-called technical plan" proposed by the Sultan last summer, which the Iraqis firmly rejected.
Though they stress that they oppose power blocs and alliances, the Iraqis maintain that the Gulf states can safeguard their own security, without any superpower intervention.
This idea apparently strikes a chord with several policymakers in the Arab city-states that dot the southwestern shore of the Gulf, where a residue of resentment against the British still lingers and confidence in Western promises has been seriously eroded in past months.
"As far as I'm concerned, if the Soviets come to us, we should let them in," one disgruntled officer in a Gulf state army told the Monitor. "We couldn't stop them, and what did the West ever do for us?"
This might have been an extreme expression of his views. But it represents the despair with which many of America's traditonal friends in the Arab world view current regional developments.
One possible way out of this impasse being discussed by opinion-formers and policymakers of several Arab tendencies is the idea of forging a tactical alliance between Gulf oil producers and the West Europeans who consume most of their oil.
One leading Beirut editorialist says that the United States wants to "make Europe go hungry" by raising tensions in the Gulf. He and many others consider that effective counterpressure against this can be exerted only by the Arabs and Europeans acting in concert.
But those discussing this idea all stress that European action on the Palestine issue must be a precondition for any such alliance -- and there again, there are grave doubts whether anything will be done.