President Carter is winning votes in his own southland, but it is fortunate for him that he does not have to run for reelection in Western Europe or the Middle East. His credibility there as diplomat, statesman, and alliance leader has hit a new low.
Two months ago Mr. Carter was summoning the allies in Europe to join him in perfecting a new grouping of nations to shore up the Middle East and keep the Soviets from advancing any farther toward the oil of the Persian gulf.
But today Pakistan is looking not to Washington but to Paris for outside help. Britain and West Germany are taking their lead in alliance policy (Afghanistan, for example) from Paris rather than from Washington. Turkey is being helped primarily by West Germany, not from Washington.
If NATO is to be saved (which is essential for all concerned), it will be more because its various members know they dare not get along without it than because of confidence in Washington.If Moscow's fingers are to be kept out of the oil fields of the Gulf, it will be for other reasons than respect for Carter diplomacy.
Mr. Carter's handling of the alliance and its interests has been damaged by several episodes since he entered the White House. His human rights campaign struck the allies as naive. His on-and-off attitude toward the "neutron bomb" gave him a reputation for inconsistency and carelessness. Long before this month his allies sensed in him a man with no clear sense of strategy in world affairs and little competence in tactics.
Earlier doubts were multiplied by the extraordinary episode of the US vote in the UN on Israel which was repudiated two days later by the White House on the grounds of a "failure in communications." In matters as important as that vote any "failure of communications" is inconceivable in a normally well-run government.
Either Mr. Carter's foreign policy staff is intolerably incompetent, or Mr. Carter has no consistent sense of policy. One is as bad as the other. Take your choice as to the more likely explanation.
If it is staff incompetence, then Mr. Carter had better get himself a new staff at once. If it is lack of consistent policy, then Mr. Carter had better do, in fact, what his press agents have been representing him as doing ever since the people at the US Embassy in Tehran were seized and held as hostages last Nov. 4.
The official version ever since is that Mr. Carter has been too busy with foreign affairs to go around the states campaigning for votes. But if he had, in fact, been paying close and careful and daily attention to foreign affairs, in particular to anything having to do with developments in the Middle-East affecting US access to the oil supplies of the Gulf, he would have authorized the vote exactly as it was cast by his ambassador at the UN on March 1, and stood firmly by it thereafter.
That vote was for a resolution in the UN's Security Council that deplored Israeli settlements in occupied Arab terriotry and called for the removal of such settlements from occupied Arab territory.
This has been official US foreign policy from the time of Israeli occupation at the end of the 1967 war. It has been asserted by Presidents Johnston, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. There was nothing new about a US contention that the settlements are illegal, that they are an obstacle to peace, that the planting of more such settlements must cease, and that existing settlements must someday be removed.
The US vote in favor of that resolution put the United States in step with the policy of its NATO allies in Europe toward the Middle East. It added US support to the cause of autonomy for the Arabs of the occupied territories, a step essential to the conclusion of a general peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.
It cleared the way for a more active US role in building a grouping of Middle East countries to protect against further Soviet expansion toward the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. It was in every way a logical part of a coherent and consistent US policy toward the Middle East. It may even have helped toward peace with Iran and release of the hostages.
But two days after that entirely logical vote had been cast (after clearance with the White House), Mr. Carter said the vote had been cast "incorrectly."
The result is that now no one knows or can know precisely what is US policy toward anything in the Middle East. Does Washington truly want a grouping of countries from Turkey through Pakistan that could and would take common action to contain Moscow within its present military frontiers? Does Washington truly want a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors? Does Mr. Carter understand what it means to move ahead carefully, by logical successive steps toward these ends? Is he willing to pay whatever political price at home may be necessary to move in that direction?
Over the past week the inability of Washington to articulate and pursue a coherent Middle East policy was underlined by the travels through that area of the President of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
The French President set forth for the Persian Gulf states on March 1 as the UN was getting ready to vote on the Israel resolution. He was among the oil Arabs when the White House repudiated the UN vote. He was, of course, the beneficiary. He brought home in March 10 the prospect that France will have preferential access to Arab oil at preferential prices, no matter what Mr. Carter in Washington may do next.
The sequel comes in two parts. Part I is that the repudiation of the vote in the UN did not save the Jewish vote for Mr. Carter. On March 11 the Jewish wards in Florida voted for Senator Kennedy against President Carter. PArt II is that there continues to be a major repair job to be done for the NATO alliance, and an emergency job still unmanaged in the Middle East.
President Carter's State of the Union speech of Jan. 23 was supposed to have been the beginning on the tasks of building a new security system for the Middle East. Now, nearly two months later, there is still no visible progress. If anything, matters are worse today than they were then.