In quick succession, the Carter administration has been dealt two sharp blows to its defense building in the Middle East. The most obvious of these blows has been Pakistan's rejection of President Carter's offer of a $400 million worth military aid.
But a more subtle setback has come in the form of Arab reaction to the President's March 3 repudiation of a US vote in favor of a United Nations' resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories.
At the heart of both developments seems to be a lack of trust in the Carter administration among many of the Muslim nations of the Middle East. It is partly on the basis of such trust in the United States that the administration has hoped to pursue the so-called Carter doctrine and build defenses for the protection of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.
But administration credibility seems to be have reached a low point in the major oil-producing countries of the region as well as in Oman, a small nation overlooking the strait through which half the world's oil tankers pass. Oman had recently declared itself ready to provide the United States not with full-fledged military bases but with the increased use of its military facilities.
There seems to be no "quick fix" solution to the administration's credibility problem either with the Pakistanis or with the Muslim nations of the gulf. What the administration fails to project, according to Arab diplomats in the US, is an impression of competence and steadiness. That can only be built and nurtured over a period of some time.
In the case of Pakistan, the administration's offer of aid was even in teh early stages belittled by President Muhammad Zua ul-Haq as "peanuts." The Pakistanis argued that the aid being offered was too small to be effective but large enough to make their country vulnerable to the charge that it was acting as a surrogate for the US.
In the case of President Carter's repudiation of the US vote against Israeli settlements. Arab reaction was negative across the board. In possibly the most severe criticism, one Arab ambassador who asked not to be identified said: "The Carter doctrine was meant to offer the Arabs some assurances. Instead, the President has murdered his doctrine -- and his credibility. He has blown up the bridges of mutual confidence."
This diplomat, like many others, was skeptical of the President's statement that the US vote at the United Nations had come as the result of a communications failure. Arab diplomats believe that the President's repudiation of the vote was simply the result of pressure from Israel and from the American Jewish community.
"I will never negotiate with the Americans again, because in the end they cannot deliver," said an Arab diplomat working at the UN. "Even when they seem to deliver, they take it away the next day."
Diplomats such as this one have stated repeatedly in recent weeks that they feel more threatened by the Israeli's treatment of the Palestinians and what they describe as the resulting threat of Palestinian radicalization than they do by any possible overt attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to take over Persian Gulf oil.
As analyst familiar with the thinking of the leaders of Saudi Arabia said President Carter's action on the UN vote will only reinforce an already existing tendency on the part of the Saudis to seek to place more distance between themselves and the US. In the ultimate sense, the Saudis will remain dependent on economic and security ties with the United States, he said, but "they want more leeway."
The Saudis apparently fear that the US drive to obtain the increased use of military facilities in the gulf region will merely provoke a Soviet response and strengthen radical trends in the region. To attempt to act as a moderating force on so-called radical nations, the Saudis have been drawing closer to an old antagonist, Iraq. The Iraqis, for their part, have grown increasingly mistrustful of their big-power friend, the Soviet Union. They, too, are seeking to diversify their ties with other countries. The Iraqis for some time have enjoyed friendly relations with France, and now those ties are expected to grow warmer.
There is, at the moment, a tendency on the part of a number of Western European nations, including France, to see the Palestinian issue as potentially more "destabilizing" than any frontal threat from the Soviet Union. This seems to be one of the main reasons why the French and others have recently been giving public support to the Palestinians' "right to self-determination."