US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. sets foot in the Middle East late this week as the first high-level Reagan administration official to visit this volatile region. It is an area intimately tied up with the United States econony (the Gulf oil fields), political philosophy (containment of communism), and ethno-religious heritage (Israel, Lebanon, Greece, among others).
Yet at no time in the 2 1/2 months of the Reagan administration has the American approach to dealing with the Middle East seemed so fraught with ambiguities, confusion, opposition, and even apparent contradictions.
The long arc from Morocco's Atlas Mountains to Afghanistan's Hindu Kush traditionally eludes a simple US policy approach. This is why most Middle Eastern nations, except Israel, are not accepting the Reagan premise that soviet expansionism is the primary problem.
At present, three major -- and dozens of minor -- areas are sensitive to every pin that drops in Washington's Foggy Bottom. Middle East leaders will be especially keen on what Secretary Haig says on his stops in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia concerning these areas:
* The West Bank: In the opening days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan appeared to reverse longstanding American policy by describing new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as legal, though not particularly helpful. But previous US policy has held that the fourth Geneva convention applies to the West Bank. This contains a section stating that civilian settlements are not allowed in occupied territory.
Then comes the broader question of the future status of land the US sees as occupied -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem. If occupied, at some point they must be vacated. Will a Palestinian state follow?
Israel, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin or under a possible successor, such as Shimon Peres, adamantly opposes this -- unless it is under the shadow of Jordan. Jordan's King Hussein, whom Mr. Haig will meet on his trip, maintains he will have no such thing.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is recognized throughout the Arab world as well as in most of Europe, Asia, and Africa as the only legitimate voice of Palestinians, opposes anything less than no-strings-attached nationahood for palestinians.
The 33-year-old question of Palestine continues to act as a barrier to relations between the Arab world and the West. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, all pro-American, nevertheless argue continually for Palestinian national rights. And though Saudi Arabia has forsworn the oil weapon, a breakdown in the Arab-Israel situation still could see it resort to oil as leverage.
* Lebanon: Although the US continues to support Israeli's right to defend its territory, it appears to be increasingly irritated with the actions of a renegade Lebanese Army officer who is supplied, backed up, and to some extent directed by Israel. Maj. Saad Haddad's most troublesome actions have come in the past few wekss when his men fired on Lebanese Army regular forces and in the process killed three UN peacekeeping soldiers. A direct clash between Haddad and the UN forces could be in the making.
Haddad March 29 repeated his determination to oppose Lebanese troop deployments near his enclave. But UN Commander William Callaghan saus he is determined that Lebanon shoudl assert its sovereignty by stationing troops in its own territory.
* US bases: President Reagan maintains that the US should have military bases on the mainland in the Middle East in order to enhance security. But the questions is where will these bases go?
Egyptian officials say a US military presence in their country would not be tolerated. A base in Israel, in the opinion of most diplomats, would not be accepted by the Arab world. Oman and Somalia offer possible locations, as does the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. But there does not appear to be a more central location to defend the oil fields and shipping of the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia is reported to be confident it can defend itself and is opposed to a higher US military profile.
Haig's visit is planned as a four-day whirlwind tour, in which little of substance can be expected to transpire.
Last week's administration infighting between Haig and Vice-President Bush tends to enhance this view, since Bush seems to have come out with a major foreign policy role that would have great prominence in a potential crisis. But while crises occur with some frequency in the Middle East, it is still the work of State Department diplomacy to bring about a lasting betterment of the situation.
"There are signals coming from Washington that could be new policy directions ," an American political officer in the Middle East recently explained. "They certainly sound different [from Carter administration policy]. But we still don't know that there is a clear, new line."