A major new Reagan policy thrust is emerging for the Middle East, one involving an active United States military role. The policy, still being shaped in Washington but already articulated in part by President Reagan, Secretry of State Alexander Haig, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, will eclipse previous US Mideast policy -- namely, the Camp David agreement -- without scrapping it.
But an extra dimension will be added to Mideast diplomacy by giving a higher profile to the US military. This pattern appears to include:
* Basing American forces (or at least prepositioned American military equipment) in Egypt and/or Israel, along with continuing warnings that these forces will be employed if necessary.
* A return to US shows of force as means of quelling incipient flare-ups. These would include appearances of US warships and jet overflights in order to impress combatants in troubled countries.
* An easing of diplomatic pressure on Egypt, Israel, and Jordan to negotiate de jure peace in the Mideast, but quiet recognition of the current de facto balance between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Basing American forces in Egypt and/or Israel appears possible in light of both Reagan and Weinberger statements this week that the US would respond to offers -- or requests -- to this effect. But so far neither Egypt nor Israel has actually cleared the way for a US base.
True, the Egyptians allowed the US to stage Operation Reforger, a practice run for the Rapid Deployment Force, in November and have indicated that the tiny Ras Banas peninsula on the Red Sea could be the site of a US base. But so far President Anwar Sadat has not agreed to a permanent US military presence, just Egyptian land to be used in emergencies.
"Egypt has repeatedly said it is willing to give facilities for limited operations," an Egyptian government spokesman said Feb. 4, "and not a permanent base for US troops."
The Israelis had suggested to the Carter administration that the former Israeli air base in the Sinai, soon to come under Egyptian control, be taken over by the US. But no requests or offers for an American presence have been made by Israel, and Mr. Sadat is known to object to American use of the former Israeli facilities.
"If there is a request from the free world, we'd consider it," an Israeli government spokesman told the Monitor Feb. 4. "We'd more than consider it, we'd probably agree to it. But our policy all along has been that we would never need to request it for our own aid because we insist on the necessity of defending ourselves."
The most dramatic departure from the Carter administration's approach to the Middle East seems to be the willingness to use US forces to insure stability. Instead of trying to cope with crises occurring far from the reach of the military -- such as the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979 -- Reagan policy would include moving US forces into friendly adjacent countries in order to show force and to protect US interests, analysts in the region believe.
This policy is used frequently by the French. After Chad fell to a Libyan-backed group, France sent troops to the Central African Republic in order to be prepared for possible intervention and to bolster neighboring states.
Also now possible will be movements of the US Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean to insure stability along the western rim of the Middle East. The US could stand ready to intervene if, for instance, Lebanese anarchy broke into open conflict.
Again, the French are practitioners of this approach, having sent warships steaming through the waters off Tripoli, Libya, after the row developed over Libyan adventures in central Africa.
"We may go back to the days when the Sixth Fleet could pull up alongside Lebanon in order to quiet things down," says a veteran Mideast observer, who also believes that lack of a US show of force in 1975 and thereafter may have helped perpetuate the Lebanese chaos.
A combination of events also makes it appear unlikely that Camp David will be followed by "Camp David II" or the so-called "Jordanian option." Jordan's King Hussein, who would be instrumental in any move involving the Israeli-occupied West Bank, again last week at the Islamic summit conference in Saudi Arabia reiterated that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," thereby distancing himself from a much-conjectured role as patron of the West Bank Palestinians.
Neither Israel nor the Reagan administration will deal with the PLO, an organization both brand as "terrorist."