Washington'a ability to lead its friends and allies is visibly lessened in the wake of the rescue that failed in the Iranian desert. France this past week decided to ignore Washington's wishes about the summer Olympic Games. A French team will go. True, West Germany is not going, but that was expected. Where France goes, other "undecideds" are bound to follow. President Carter's effort to mobilize a general boycott of the games seems to be sagging.
The Western allies are pulling away from or whittling down the general program of sanctions against Iran which they had more or less accepted on the understanding that it would head off any use of military force by the US against Iran. The rescue effort seemed to them to have violated that understanding. So now, they pull away from the sanctions.
Japan is probably doing the same. Some reports say it is paying the higher price Iran is charging for its oil.
Perhaps more important than the above, and equally symptomatic of a flow of leadership away from Washington, was the decision by President Sadat of Egypt to suspend the stalled talks with Israel over autonomy for the Arabs of the occupied territories in Palestine.
That seemed to be about the end of the Camp David road.
It would not have been the end had President Carter delivered on the promise implicit in the Camp David agreements to require of Israel the grant to the Arabs of a degree of self-rule that the Arabs themselves would accept. But Mr. Carter had repudiated the UN vote of March 1 calling on Israel to cease planting Israeli settlements in Arab lands and withdraw from those already planted. That repudiation was seen in Egyptian eyes (and to almost everyone else as well) as a capitulation by Mr. Carter to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It meant that at least until after US election day in November Israel need make no concessions either to President Sadat or to the Arabs.
In other words, Mr. Sadat has to look elsewhere for any further help in extracting from Israel any improvement of the treatment of the occupied Arabs by Israel. Obviously, he is looking toward the same West Europeans who are putting more distance between themselves and Mr. Carter.
President Carter's failure to attend the funeral in Belgrade for President Tito was a contributing factor in the trend of allies and Egypt to pull away from Washington leadership and think and act more for themselves. The West Europeans would all have been helped and reassured by a Carter presence at that funeral. The continued independence of Yugoslavia is of first importance to all of them. Washington would have been doing something for them by sharing in their expressions of concern about Yugoslavia.
Now the allies wonder what Washington is doing for them in return for what Washington asks of them. The NATO allies particularly want peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Arabs to protect their access to Middle East oil. In their eyes Mr. Carter is the one person who could bring about such a peace by insisting that Israel carry on with the expectations of Camp David. Israel is far too dependent on US aid to be able to refuse anything that an insistent US president might require of them.
The allies are worried about Soviet aggressiveness and would be happy to cooperate with the US in efforts to restrain Soviet expansionism, provided they are consulted in the process about ways and means. But President Carter has allowed himself to be more concerned about the hostages in Iran than about Soviet troops in Afghanistan. To a European, Iran is a diversion of attention from the more serious matter of Soviet expansionism.
Mr. Carter's choice of measures to be taken against Moscow is also a sore point between Washington and its allies. To them, Mr. Carter has been unwise to rush for overt sanctions rather then quiet diplomacy. The sanctions might well injure the economies of the allies more than that of the Soviets. And, the allies were not consulted in advance about ways and means.
None of which proves, as people are sometimes hasty to assume, that the NATO alliance is falling apart. Even the French value it and wish, and intend, to keep it going. But it does prove that Mr. Carter cannot lead or influence the allies as easily as could some of his predecessors. Partly this is inevitable. In one way it is healthy. It means the allies are learning more self-reliance. But it also means that Washington cannot have things all its own way.
President Carter's Iran sanctions policy is not yet entirely a dead letter, but allied enthusiasm for it is unabashedly limited. The allies simply regard it as counterproductive, and see little use in putting external pressures of any kind on a country that does not have a government which can govern. Elections in Iran this past week have increased the power of the Muslim clergy at the expense of President Bani Sadr, who is obviously a president in name only.
Why try to put pressure on a nongovernment incapable of reacting to such pressures?
As for the Middle East. If Mr. Carter cannot support a UN resolution condemning actions by Israel of which he and the State Department consistently have disapproved how can any progress be expected until the elections are over? Which means that if serious progress toward a Middle East peace is to be resumed the initiative will have to come from some other place or places.
Mr. Sadat has prepared himself to turn elsewhere by breaking off the useless talks with Israel and reorganizing his government.
If Mr. Carter is not very careful he is likely to see the European allies taking over the Middle East problem by recornizing the PLO and organizing a new Geneva conference including the Soviet Union. They are likely also to try to revive detente by their own initiative, leaving Mr. Carter to trail along behind if he wishes.