Who's winning in the Middle East?

Oil and strategic location make the Middle East a coveted piece of real estate. After World War II, the British and French had hardly vacated the premises before two new prospective tenants showed up -- the United States and the Soviet Union. The subsequent history of the area can be largely told in terms of the competition between these two arch-rivals.

At the outset, the US position seemed much the stronger. Devout Muslims were antipathetic to Marxism. Arab resentment of Western imperialism was diluted by admiration for Western values and achievements. English was gaining fast as the second language. Dedicated American educators in several capitals were winning Arab hearts and minds. US oil companies had the inside track in Arabia.

Surveying the postwar world, the Wise Men in Washington conceived their responsibility as stabilization -- for the United States, itself the product of revolution, had now become a status-quo power.

This policy had a fatal flaw. In the Middle East, the status quo was doomed:

* The patchwork pattern of frontiers bore dubious relevance to ethnic boundaries or economic interactions.

* Traditionalist regimes that had thrived in the hothouse climate of colonialism withered fast in the harsh winds of independence.

* Harshest of all were the mounting demands of the masses for a better life. The emergent leaderships had sung the siren song of burgeoning prosperity, but their promises ran head-on against geography (in the sandy wastes of inner Yemen , some tribes habitually survived on camel's milk, reserving solid food for alternte days), demography (togetherness-inclined Egyptians are breeding a population time-bomb), and politics (in Syria/Lebanon, primal hatreds perverted a land of beauty into a land of bloodshed).

And so America's "positions of strength" began to crumble before its eyes, but when they did, policymakers recoiled from questioning the sacrosanctity of anointed policy. Instead, they confronted the rising flood of social change with a haphazard complex of dikes, dams, and levees: the CENTO pact against Soviet "encroachment"; economic aid to Nasser's Egypt, as long as Nasser behaved himself; arms aid to preserve Israel's military superiority over any conceivable combination of Arab opponents; unholy alliance with a misguided Shah.

The watchword was coercion:m the exertion of US power to impose unpalatable policies on Middle East governments, and to undermine those governments that resisted.

The wonder of it all is that Washington so long persisted in its blind fixation with deterring the undeterrable. Even today, oblivious to past disasters, the Carter administration gleans hope from two operations still intact:

First, the broad understanding within which Saudi Arabia favors American technology and American access to its oil, in return for unspoken protection against Soviet or Soviet-supported attack. Second, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, wherein the US is the silent but principal partner.

Unless these operations lead to Arab-Israeli settlement, there is every reason to expect that they too will fail; the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo will give up on us, or their people will give up on them.

It is easy to see how the Russians, despite their clumsy diplomacy and their joyless society, have scored so many points on us so far. In a region rife with instability, they are peddling destabilization. And yet intervention in Afghanistan looms on the Middle Eastern horizon as proof that the Russians at heart are at least as imperialistic as we. Their long-term solution for the area is no better than ours.

Who is winning in the Middle East? The answer is a dismal one: no one. Not the Russians; not the Americans; certainly not anyone in the area.

But Americans can take heart in recent hints that their government is beginning to recognize the broad spectrum of common Arab-American interests that offers promise for a policy of co-option.m

If Americans can overcome their phobia toward instability, they can join the dramatic process of modernization and help to fill the power vacuum, not by encouraging nervous sheikhs to pour defense dollars into the desert sands, but by promoting an area-wide consensus of progress, however shattering to any one regime or state.

America has endured many frustrations out there, but the worst of these were of its own making.

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