A lot of Arabs seem to be wondering why a lot of Americans are so worked up over Libya's $220,000 payment to Billy Carter. Neither side, once again, appears to understand the other. This yawning gap may help explain why US-Arab relations are so shaky, and why overall Middle East peace is so elusive.
US commentators hint darkly at a "plot" by Libya's radical strong man, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, to buy his way into American government.
This sounds ominous, and shouldn't surprise Americans who see Colonel Qaddafi as an eccentric dictator who has harbored hijackers, ordered opponents "liquidated," regularly talked of cutting off oil supplies to the United States, and despises Israel.
Colonel Qaddafi is a "madman" and an "adolescent" -- at least, that's how Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Arab-leader-turned-US-television-star characterizes him all the time.
Many Arab officials and analysts, even opponents of the Egyptian-Israeli separate peace, tend to agree with Mr. Sadat's stab at psychoanalysis. But that may be partly because Arab politics is something of a secular religion, with "Arab unity" as its first commandment. Colonel Qaddafi is a truculent, iconoclastic free-lancer.
The Billy Carter story, meanwhile, reads very differently in Arabic than in English. Arab political analysts sounded out by The Christian Science Monitor seemed to agree on at least three points:
* To the Arab commentators, the hullabaloo in the United States over the Billy Carter affair seems yet further "proof" of Washington's double standard concerning the Middle East. "It's all right for Israel and its supporters to pour millions of dollars into lobbying for support in the United States," one analyst put it. "But it's somehow wrong for the Arabs to do so."
* Libya's reported loan to Billy Carter may be more a sign of friendship than a bid for influence. Echoing past Arab puzzlement over the Lockheed bribe controversy, another analyst argued: "Billy Carter had said nice things about the Libyans. He visisted Libya. In the Arab tradition, you help out friends, and $220,000 is not that much money in a country where oil earns millions of dollars a day."
* And even if the Libyans were seeking to influence the US government, why is that so wrong? "The Americans keep saying they want a fair peace in the Middle East, and an evenhanded policy. But this translates into millions of dollars in US aid for an Israeli government that denies the Palestinians their rights and keeps building settlements," one prominent Arab commentator complained privately.
In the accepted Arab view, the salient point to be made about US government policy is that Israel calls the shots. "The US of Carter, the Congress, and the Zionist lobby is . . . denying our [Palestinian] rights," wrote one Arab newspaper as Americans began sorting out the Billy Carter controversy.
In the accepted US view, the salient point to be made about Arab policy (though no longer about Egyptian policy) is that Palestinians of the ilk that gave the world airplane hijacking are calling the shots.
Both pictures are, at least, simplistic. Each makes US-Arab entente, and eventual Middle East peace, more difficult.