The Israeli bombs that took out Iraq's nearly completed Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad did more damage than that. They also undermined the foundations of President Ronald Reagan's plans for a "strategic consensus" of Middle East countries to keep the Soviet out of the oil fields of Arabia and the Gulf.
It seems inconceivable that in the wake of this military act against one Arab country other Arab countries would be willing to join in a military grouping that included Israel.
Besides, since the planes that carried the bombs were made in the United States, even the most conservative Arab countries would find it difficult to admit American soldiers and sailors to their bases and harbors and cities. Washington's Rapid Deployment Force is going to have a more difficult time finding places in the Mideast into which to deploy.
It was particularly unfortunate for President Reagan that this happened on the same day it became known that the Kremlin has sent the same kind of stern ultimatum to the Poles that preceded the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The overtones are ominous.
In some Western diplomatic quarters the general assumption is that Moscow has probably made its decision to intervene by decisive force in internal Polish affairs. It is considered probably too late now for the Western countries to do or say anything that could spare Poland from a Soviet military occupation.
The conjunction of these these two hard events puts a further burden on the Western alliance at a moment when both in Washington and in the capitals of Western Europe the condition of the NATO alliance is recognized as being critical and in need of urgent repair.
Not everyone in the foreign policy community agrees with the London Economist , which said in its June 6 issue that the relationship between Western Europe and North America "is in the early stages of what could be a terminal illness." The most encouraging feature of the NATO situation is that in every NATO country the serious leders are worried about the condition and do want to do something about it.
The parlous condition of the alliance is exposed by the mere fact that it is not possible today to arrive at a common NATO position either on Poland or on Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor.
Trouble in the alliance was first exposed when President Carter in Washington proposed vigorous sanctions against Moscow over the invasion of Afghanistan. The European allies straggled behind doing as little as decency possible -- sometimes not even that.
Ever since, Washington has been urging them to join in setting up joint military forces in the Indian Ocean to help protect the great oil route so important to all members of the modern industrial democracies. The response has been minimal.
The think tanks of the alliance countries have been working away at the problem for over a year. They have been generating a whole series of documents urging action. The problem has undoubtedly been examined at least cursorily in the series of visits alliance leaders from Britain, France, West Germany, and Japan have recently must be aware by now of a general anxiety.
But President Reagan seems reluctant to divert time and attention from his efforts to repair the US domestic economy. He doesn't want to get deeply into other matters. That means that crises like the Israeli bombing of the Iraq nuclear reactor get quick, individual attention as separate events, but are not fitted into a broad strategic pattern of alliance action.
For example, the State Department and White House in Washington were quick to issue words of disapproval of what Israel has done. And it was announced that a study would be made to determine whether use of US planes in the attack violated the terms of the contract under which Israel was allowed to buy those planes. But as yet there is no general Reagan policy toward Israel's expanding military activities in the Middle East.
In this case Israel violated the airspace of the two Arab countries that have all along been most cooperative with the United States -- Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
That Israel some day to take out that Iraq reactor has been assumed in Western diplomatic quarters for months. The timing of the deed may have been a surprise, but the deed was no surprise to anyone who keeps up with Middle East affairs. It has been predicted for some time.
Arabs can justly feel that Washington could have prevented this by a stern warning to Israel on pain of the withholding of arms or economic subsidies.
Poland is a case where Washington and the West European allies have actually been working along conflicting lines. Washington has indulged in vague warnings within a general cloud of anti-Soviet rhetoric. The West Europeans have given Poland economic help in the hope that the avoidance of an economic collapse might reduce tensions inside Poland and thus reduce excuses for Soviet intervention.
Probably the ideal way of handling this would have been a common alliance policy of extending economic aid to Poland and combining this with quiet assurances to Moscow that the West is not trying to separate Poland from the Warsaw Pact-alliance.
Washington's anti-Soviet noises and warnings have probably become arguments for the hard-liners inside the Politburo in Moscow. To them, this would merely be an additional reason for making sure with Soviet troops that Poland does not escape.
The prime purpose of Soviet diplomacy for years has been to break up the NATO alliance and see the end of the relationship that has existed for more than 30 years between West Europe and North America.
A Soviet military occupation of Poland might have a reverse effect, of rekindling in Western Europe of a sense of the importance of the alliance. This is perhaps one reason it has not happened yet. But if it does happen and if the Western allies react in widely different ways, the effect will merely be to advertise the weakness of the alliance.
A strong, working alliance with agreed policies and strategies coudl probably save Poland and almost certainly could have prevented the Iraq affair. The best way to have headed that off would have been to prevent France and Italy from supplying the nuclear know-how for Iraq, which has little clear need for it. Failure to prevent Iraq from acquiring nuclear technology caused the condition that Isra el felt justified in removing unilateraly.