Altering US strategy in the Middle East

The difficulty with Syria over the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, and the refusal of King Hussein of Jordan to enter the Reagan plan peace process without the assent of the PLO demonstrate both the complexities and contradictions that the United States cannot avoid in the Middle East. The negotiating process itself rests on paradox and fallacy.

The US-Israeli relationship is seen by most Arabs as the source of their national torment. Had the US been ostracized from Arab politics, it would not have been surprising. Yet the firm Arab conviction that only the US could ever induce Israel to come to terms with the Arab perception of the Palestine question has allowed the US access to Arab counsels.

Nevertheless, over the years it has become apparent that the United States cannot or will not move the Israelis to accommodate the Arabs. Nor has it been successful in convincing many Arabs to modify their views about Israel. The insistence on dealing with Arabs and Israelis principally as a mediator has proved futile. It sometimes seems that only a guileless American optimism assures the life of the peace process. Admittedly, this alone may make American optimism worthwhile.

If the direct road to peace through a negotiated settlement is not passable, what about a more circuitous route? Perhaps the United States would be better off if its statesmen did not devote themselves so singlemindedly to negotiations.

In this regard, the other feature of US Middle East policy - the strategic dimension, particularly as it applies to Gulf defense - deserves consideration. In this, the US has had some success. The Rapid Deployment Force is in the making; Morocco, Oman, Egypt, and Somalia are being worked into US strategy with base rights, landing agreements, arms supply programs and the like. Apparently, it is easier to give people guns than to convince them to compromise on their national interests.

But in these strategic efforts, the US has also experienced difficulties. At the beginning of the Reagan administration, Alexander Haig tried to relate Israel to the regional defense aspects of Middle East diplomacy through ''strategic consensus.'' Haig argued that there was wisdom in setting aside Arab/Israeli differences long enough to allow for a modicum of implicit cooperation between the two sides as a means of responding to the commonly perceived threat from the Soviet Union. The US would be the mortar which held the entire thing together. Unfortunately, Arabs weren't having any. Palestine must come first.

Despite its failure, Mr. Haig's idea rested on an assumption that was sound. If the Arabs and the Israelis could not set aside their differences, perhaps the United States should, at least as the focus for its diplomacy. While being attentive to possibilities for a negotiated settlement, the US could give more attention to the conditions necessary for regional defense. But even here, indirection in policy would be necessary. Rather than depicting its efforts as ''Defense of the Middle East,'' the US would do well to cast the image of policy in terms of those things that would make the area more defensible - a stable set of relationships among moderate Arab states.

Following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 the Saudis acceded to those who wished to keep Egypt isolated from Arab politics. Sometimes the Saudis came to the forefront of this move. Even since Sadat's death, with Mubarak's trying to mute the more objectionable themes of the Israeli peace, the Saudis have kept Egypt at arm's length. At the same time, most Arabs recognize that continuity in Arab politics is difficult without Egypt. It represents too much in the way of Arab power and intellect to be ignored. Thus Saudi behavior serves as a source of instability in regional affairs.

Since 1973 Saudi oil and wealth have become the other undeniable feature of Arab strength. The Cairo/Riyadh axis, therefore, represents the most powerful combination of states that can be achieved in the Arab world. Firmly in place, it would attract other less secure Arab states and contribute to a more stable Middle East.

If American diplomacy could achieve renewed ties of cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the US would be allowed room for maneuver in its activities. Changes in political environment alter conditions of negotiation. Currently Israel need not and Arabs cannot respond to anything akin to the Reagan plan for solution of the Palestinian question. This situation will continue as long as the Arab body politic remains in its present immobile state. At each turn in negotiations, the Israelis ask why they should take security risks for a peace to which so few Arabs are committed. If changes that give Arabs more assurance of internal stability could be induced, the US would probably have greater influence with Arabs and Israelis alike.

But in emphasizing its role as regional stabilizer, the United States would have to proceed with care. If the Israelis are uncomfortable when Washington presses them for concessions in the peace process, they are even more distraught when the US shifts its attention to regional affairs. As long as ''strategic consensus'' is not in the cards, any emphasis on strengthening the moderate Arabs means that Israel takes a back seat in Washington's considerations. Moreover, in terms of the mutual interests between the US and the moderates, a regional emphasis eventually means arming the Arabs.

After a point, a defense orientation for American policy will invariably face Israeli opposition. The US could justifiably maintain that in the absence of progress on negotiations, it had no choice but to pursue other interests. The discomfort experienced by Israel from this posture would be a pressure for concessions, but it would have its limits. Support for Israel from within the American body politic can be formidable. And beyond that, we know the Israelis are capable of striking out on their own whenever Arab military capability is seen as too much of a threat. It would not be the first time that American arms were used against American arms.

Thus, there is no easy way. A total disengagement from the problem - an attitude of ''A pox on both your houses'' - is a luxury the United States does not enjoy. Policy must be a juggling act. But since the passion for negotiations has produced so little, reducing the intensity of the process might be worth a try. If the US remains friendly but assumes less responsibility for their troubles, perhaps Arabs and Israelis will have to assume more.

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