World affairs continue to revolve around the efforts of the two great powers -- the USA an USSR -- to protest the one thing each considers most vital to its own welfare and security.
To the Americans the endangered vital interest is access to the oil of Arabia.
To the Soviets the endangered vital interest is control over the countries on its western frontier -- Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Over the past week Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev flew to Prague in his continuing effort to find a tolerable way to counter Poland's steady drive toward independence. This, if unchecked, would undermine the Soviet defense system in Central Europe.
At the same time Washington's new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, flew to the Middle East to explore the problem of building a friendly (to the United States) coalition of Arab Gulf states and reconciling that coalition with Israel. Failure to solve the problem would continue to expose the oil supply to possible Soviet adventures in the area.The industrial fabric of the US and of its allies, Western Europe and Japan, depends on that access.
Mr. Brezhnev may be closer to a "solution" than Secretary Haig -- if only because the Soviets have shown themselves ready to use force to keep their empire intact.
In Prague, the Soviet leader addressed the 16th Czechoslovak Communist Party Congress. In that address he referred to the events of 1968 in Prague when Soviet tanks crushed "the Prague spring" in the name of "preserving socialism" from its enemies.
He spoke of "class enemies" who continue to "hamper the development of socialism." But, he went on, "Polish communists, supported by all true patriots of Poland will be able, one must suppose, to give the necessary rebuff to the enemies of the socialist system. . . ."
While he was speaking in Prague Soviet transport planes were continuing to fly arms and equipment to the two Soviet armored divisions that have been garrisoned in Poland for years. Soviet forces remain deployed in a ring around Poland. How might they be used?
Mr. Brezhnev's words seem to indicate a possible variation on the manner whereby Moscow solved its Czech problem in 1968 and its Hungarian problem in 1956. Instead of doing anything that brutal, the Soviets may try to stiffen gradually the influence of the hard-line element in the Polish Communist Party. There might then be a gradual whittling-away of the newly won independence of farm and industrial workers.
Could Moscow's interest in regaining firm control over Poland be achieved that way? At least, it might be attempted. If it fails, then there are always the tanks in and around Poland to give support to any Communist Party move to regain the lost controls.
As for Secretary Haig in the Middle East. There is already a potential coalition of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Kuwait, etc., perhaps even drawing in Pakistan. It has not been formalized. But it could twin the vast oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and of the small Gulf states with the trained military manpower of Pakistan. Some Pakistan units are already in Saudi Arabia as an elite force and also as a nucleus around which less-trained Saudi forces could form.
But reconciling this potential coalition with Israel is another matter still a long way from solution. Mr. Haig has a plan for putting US forces into the Sinai peninsula after Israel's final withdrawal, which is scheduled for April of 1982, a year from now.Israel hopes that US forces will take over the bases Israel built there during its occupation since 1967.
The hope is that the US units would be joined by units from Britain, France. Australia, and New Zealand. It would be called a multinational force. Such a force was contemplated in the peace settlement between Israel and Egypt reached at Camp David.
But the major element in the multinational force would be American. And what is the difference between a US military unit based in the Sinai peninsula as part of a multinational force and a US unit that in time of emergency could act as part of the Rapid Deployment Force now being organized in the US itself?
One immediate problem is the dislike of Egyptians for anything that smacks of a revival of Western colonialism in Egyptian territory. Egypt has unpleasant memories of the time, not so long ago, when it was a de facto part of the British Empire. It remembers the more recent days when Soviet soldiers and sailors strutted around Egypt, and acted as the real masters of the country.
It seems doubtful that Mr. Sadat would want any British flags again from Egyptian soil. Nor does he want to be accused by his Arab neighbors of becoming a tool of "US imperialism." Besides, accepting US forces on former Israeli bases in Sinai seems to other Arabs like more US support for an Israel that still refuses to withdraw from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine.
King Khalid of Saudi Arabia opened the Muslim summit in Mecca on Jan. 25 last with a call for all Muslim states to shun military alliances with either East or West blocs. At that same Muslim summit there was much talk of a Muslim "holy war," against Israel. If Egypt admitted US troops either to police the border with Israel or to man bases in Egypt, it would be going against the feelings of most Arabs and of many Muslims.
In Arab eyes the Us is a military ally of Israel against the interests of the Arab community. Secretary Haig tended to confirm such a view when in Jordan on April 6 he declared that recent Syrian attacks on a Christian Lebanese militia force at Zahle were a "brutality" that is "unacceptable by any measure of appropriate international standards."
But in Arab eyes this is a different matter. Christian militia units in the Zahle area are in a position to cut the supply line from Damascus to the Syrian forces in Lebanon.those Syrian forces are authorized in Lebanon by the Arab League. Israel supplies guns and advisers to Christian militia units.
The Syrians are constantly worried that Israel is preparing a military offensive against Syria. The militia units at Zahle could become, in effect, part of any Israeli offensive. In February Richard Allen, President Reagan's National Security Adviser, described Israeli incursions into Lebanon as "justified" under the doctrine of "hot pursuit." Secretary Haig on April 6 called Israel an "ally" of the United States. (There is no treaty of alliance between Israel and the United States.)
To most Arabs the immediate enemy is Israel, not the Soviet Union. The Jordanians made that point forcefully to the visiting secretary of state. It will not be easy for Mr. Haig to get Arab cooperation for his anti-Soviet coalition so long as the continues to treat Israel as the essential ally in the Middle East and so long as he refrains from pushing Israel toward withdrawal form occupied Arab territory.
One part of the Haig plan is supplying American AWACS (airborne warning and combat system) planes to Saudi Arabia. The Israelis are protesting. A campaign has been launched in the Senate in Washington to forbid the sale to the Saudis.
It is a reasonable forecast that, one way or another, Mr. Brezhnev will get Poland back under control before Messrs. Haig and Reagan can get Arabs and Israelis working happily with him to protect American access to the o il of Arabia.