Domestic politics and incentives abroad

There's a lot of creative ferment going on at the moment. And much of it can be traced at least in part to that much-lamented quadrennial event, the American election.

Nothing much good can come in an election year, it is often assumed, as caution and partisanship threaten stalemate. On the other hand, inconsistently, whatever good happens under election deadlines is attributed to mere maneuvering for political gain.

It's worth thinking about this while the world watches the diplomatic huddling and shuttling about in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, and Tunis as a host of parties seek a solution to the Middle East crisis. The assumption has been that in this presidential election year the White House and Congress would not stray from simplistic conformity with, say, Israel's interests as viewed from American shores.

Part of the energy driving a renewed attempt to reach a Lebanon settlement is of course the presence of US Marines there. The prospect of an abrupt Marine pullout puts pressure on President Amin Gemayel to accommodate those factions in Lebanon which rightly demand a greater presence in the government. Heat from Congress on the White House to remove the Marines has pushed the White House to reassess its characterization of the Syrians, Israel's principal adversary. The White House, for the moment at least, has dropped its one-color view of the Syrians as Soviet puppets, now apparently accepting that Syrian cooperation is crucial to any settlement.

If a security plan can be worked out for the disengagement of rival Christian and Muslim forces in Lebanon, some equivalent cooperation with Syria and Israel will be necessary. It is encouraging that Israeli leaders appear sensitive to a growing Israeli public view that the Lebanon occupation is costing too much in shekels and lives. Shiite occupation of Lebanon above Israel's northern border might provide as much protection as is required, some Israelis now contend.

We are hearing less, at least for the moment, of warnings about ambitions for ''greater Syria'' and ''greater Israel.'' The assertion that partition of Lebanon would best suit Syrian and Israeli wishes also is looking threadbare. Would Syria, with its own sectarian pressures at home, want an atomized Lebanon to serve as a model for the Middle East? A pluralistic democratic state in Lebanon would be far preferable. For Israel too, the logic of a cohesive society to its north makes more sense.

Another fear is that the US, with an election ahead, will focus chiefly on Marine withdrawal from Lebanon and gloss over the broader Middle East settlement issues involving the Palestinians and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Cairo reportedly thinks that unless momentum can be shown quickly on a comprehensive peace, paralysis could soon set in as Americans become preoccupied with the election. Hence Egypt's efforts toward forging a moderate Arab front, supporting a Jordanian-Palestinian team to negotiate with Israel, despite Israel's refusal to negotiate with Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders at the table.

Ironically, the cynical view of US elections itself becomes a spur to action. But it overlooks the incentive, when an administration is under attack, to seek solutions.

The Reagan administration acknowledges it has as yet made no major foreign policy breakthrough. The exchange of visits between Washington and Peking is the best it has come up with. The Kissinger commission report on Central America, to be released this week, reflects recognition that policy differences between the White House and Congress cannot be allowed to run on through the election without some settlement.

Democratic elections, in the US and elsewhere, can be prods as easily as impediments to solutions.

Presidents Assad, Reagan, Mubarak, and Gemayel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir , and the Saudi leadership are all busy exploring possibilities not only of the US political moment, but their own nations' self-interest as well.

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