The US is taking a battering in the Middle East -- but more from its traditional friends than anyone else. Diplomats see anti-American sentiments cropping up among moderates in the Arab world in the aftermath of a series of Israeli acts that have demonstrated the division and apparent military weakness of the Arabs.
This is seen most in the discussion Western diplomats have with their Arab counterparts and in the Arab press. At the popular level, there is little anti-American prejudice evident. But when a discussion over coffee with a shopkeeper turns to politics, as it inevitably does, it tends to break down on the issue of US support for Israeli policy.
The most devastating acts as far as the Arabs are concerned were the June 7 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and the July 17 bombing of Beirut. Continued Israeli military activity in and over Lebanon, and Israel's apparent plan to speed up civil control of the West Bank and east Jerusalem are also factors that have demoralized Arabs.
In Amman, for instance, Jordanian officials say they are at ends with the US policy of commitment to Israel above all else.
"We cannot understand why the US sees that it is on a one-way track of full support of arms and finance to Israel," a Jordanian government spokesman said earlier this week.
The Jordanian adds up (1) traditionally closes US-Israeli military ties, (2) the use of US-supplied F-16s in the attack on Iraq, and (3) Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's assertion that the crisis with Syria was a cover of sorts for the raid on Iraq. (He made the remark by way of explaining why he had suddenly let the Syrian missile issue drop.)
The Jordanian concludes, "With all this, there was no action by America to stop them. So America might as well have attacked Iraq."
His displeasure with US Middle East policy has been echoed to the Monitor in recent days by Lebanese, West-Bank Palestinians, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians. A Lebanese political analyst told the Monitor last week that in his business contacts with moderate Arabs he is finding a great deal of consternation with the US due to the recent Israeli acts. According to Western diplomats in the Arab world, this exasperation is most apparentin moderate Arab states.
The Habib mission has been criticized by the Jordanian press as an unfair attempt to separate Lebanon from the overall Arab-Israeli problem (much as Camp David separated Egypt from the overall conflict). The Syrian state-controlled press accuses Mr. Habib of simply fronting for Israel. Arab officials in several countries say the Israeli attacks on Lebanon at a time when President Reagan's own special envoy is seeking a cease-fire should cause a rift between the US and Israel.
Mr. Habib July 21 was continuing his talks with Israeli leaders in an effort to quiet the flare-up.
Despite the battering US policy is taking in the Arab world, diplomats note at least one anomaly: In Iraq -- one country where anti-Americanism might really be expected to play due to the Israeli attack in US-built F-16s -- analysts note that President Saddam Hussein is scrupulously avoiding a connection between Israel and the Us. Iraqi officials seem to accept the US contention that Washington had no prior knowledge of the air raid. But diplomats say they continually ask why the US has not done more to rein in Israel.
"They don't accuse the Americans of being liars," an observer of Iraqi policy notes, "but they say the Americans may be fools if they let Israel dictate in the Middle East."
At a recent international conference in Baghdad designed to rally support for Iraq, President Hussein condemned the Israelis in strong -- if unthreatening -- language. But he never once directly mentioned the US as being party to the attack -- something the moderate Jordanian press has done frequently. In fact, the only direct reference to the US was that it and France "bear prime responsibility" for enabling Israel to acquire nuclear weapons.
What these midsummer soundings in the Arab world seem to amount to is a changing Arab perspective on the US. Moderates, who have staked much of their security on their ties with America, are shouting the loudest due to their internal vulnerability: the need to talk tough in order to appease radicals at home, or next door. There also is a mounting feeling among moderates, says a diplomat, that they are consigned to "perennial second fiddle" to Israel.
A country like Iraq, however, which is turning westward economically and moderating itself politically (though it still very much a closed, tight-security, somewhat xenophobic society) is watching the US patiently for the moment. Diplomats believe Mr. Hussein is making a genuine effort not to alienate the Reagan Administration at a crucial stage in the formulation of US foreign policy.
Iraq's waiting game may soon be tested, however. The Reagan Administration will have to decide what to do with a suspended shipment of 10 F-16 fighters to Israel. Four of the high-technology fighter-bombers -- which the Iraqis have an almost mythical regard for, and fear of -- were suspended after the June 7 Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor. The other six planes were scheduled to leave for Israel late July 20 but their shipment was also blocked. "The escalating level of violence" in the Middle East is the reason for the suspension.
It is noteworthy that the Iraqi press has been conditioning its readers to eventual release of the first four suspended F-16s.
But even in this case, Western diplomats believe Iraq will stay moderate no matter what course Washington takes. Not so with nations such as Jordan, however.
Diplomats note that Arab moderates see no real US initiative for Mideast peace in the offing. Instead, they talk of the Palestine Liberation Organization returning to terrorism, of possible use of the oil weapon, and even of another Arab-Israeli war. This kind of talk, both Arabs and Westerners say, does not so much indicate intentions as it points to a kind of desperation.