In its efforts to mediate one crisis after another in the Middle East the United States often fails to take into account the way Arabs respond to threats and to the actual use of force. The problem does not begin with the Arabs themselves. It begins with us. We seldom reflect on how we perceive international threats. As a result, we have no well-established notion of how others might differ from us in this regard.
In the first instance, we usually see a threat to use force as an effort to influence the mind of an adversary in some way that is almost distinct from the actual application of that force. Our thinking on this matter has been shaped largely by the nuclear diplomacy of the past 35 years.
In great power politics, our behavior has assumed many of the abstract characteristics of gaming. It is much like the chessboard warfare and diplomacy of the 17th century. After all, real nuclear war is beyond human comprehension. Consequently, participants in the game have no sense of imminent injury. A threat to use force becomes little more than a vague context within which discussion proceeds on the dispute at hand. If we can imprint the appropriate image on the mind of our antagonist, we see ourselves having an advantage. In such a contest, we are trading on the potentialm of the force we command, not on the force we are actually prepared to use.
For the Arabs, the situations is diferent. They place the prospect of force in a totally tangible melange of past and present relationships. This outlook prevents their antagonists from using a hypothetical threat to win a point through elegant diplomacy. Actually, it was redundant for Israel to threaten to use force if Syria did not withdraw its missiles from Lebanon. The Syrians were fully aware of this attitude on the Israelis' part. History has taught them that much. The Israelis' destruction of the nuclear reactor near Baghdad only emphasizes this point.
The upshot of these circumstances is that Arabs are poor subjects for psychological warfare or pressure tactics. When faced with a threat from Israel , there is little reason for an Arab leader to adjust his behavior. The benefits of acquiescence are offset by an assortment of negative effects. Conceivably, compliance with an Israeli threat that has been reinforced by American "mediation" will eventually lead to even more demands. When confronted with threats, the Arabs know that because of Israel's strength (provided by the United States) they will have to bear certain losses and indignities.
The Arabs may not always have perfect foresight in their political and military moves. Some observers may view Syria's placing of missiles on Lebanon as a mistake. But the Arabs' strong sense of national pride prevents them from accepting anything Israel attempts to achieve through threats and force. This attitude could account for what appears to have been an excessive use of force by the Syrians in reacting to the Christian Phalangist army at Zahle.
The problem for the Arabs is an almost total lack of options in responding to the Israelis' antics. Yet, conditions are intolerable. Thus, the Arabs ultimately adopt as their purpose the limited objective of denying Israel whatever it hopes to accomplish. The consequences of their posture matter little to the Arabs. We often add to the difficulty by seeing the Arab response as essentially negative and unconstructive. The bombing of the Iraqi reactor gives us an opportunity to inquire as to why this might be.
When placed in a position of measuring relative strength with Israel, Arabs sometimes assume what amounts to a negative self-concept. They simply do not respond to threats. They know that they cannot win anyway. As a result, they tend to become immobile, almost as if they are in a state of conditioned helplessness.
Threats of force by Israel can have only one purpose within the Arab context -- the Israelis mean to carry them out. But the Arabs want the Israelis to proceed in the knowledge that whatever gains are realized will have to be maintained by the continued application of that force. This outlook reflects the limits of Arab military strength. It also explains why underlying tensions will always exist between the United States and the Arabs as long as Arab leaders identify us with the Israelis.
Thus, we have really had little reason to believe that the Syrians would withdraw their missiles from Lebanon -- unless Israelis threats cease. The raid on Irag has probably dashed whatever hope there might have been for such a prospect. Convincing Menachem Begin to quiet down has, in fact, been our principal task. Only then can Arabs, Israelis and the United States work toward a new modus vivendi in Lebanon or eventuall y comtemplate peace for the entire region.