Vice-President George Bush this week trades the quiet confines of the White House for a Middle East beset by terrorism, civil conflict, and conventional war. Following news of yesterday's bombing of a TWA Boeing 727 en route from Rome to Athens, speculation is rife that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi may now be making good on threats to use terrorism to retaliate against the United States for last week's military engagement in the Gulf of Sidra. At press time, however, no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The timing of the TWA incident may also be linked to recent reports that the United States has been conducting secret high-level talks with Egypt concerning a possible joint invasion of Libya to topple Colonel Qaddafi.
Meanwhile, fearing the resumption of large-scale fighting between rival Lebanese militias, France has announced plans to withdraw its 45-man peace-keeping force deployed along Beirut's ``green line'' separating Muslim and Christian Beirut. Many fear new outbreaks of sectarian fighting could presage the collapse of civil order in Lebanon.
In a visit to the Persian Gulf region, Mr. Bush will directly address threats posed by tumbling oil prices and the possible expansion of the five-year Iran-Iraq war into the Arabian Peninsula. Iranian troops have taken control of the Faw Peninsula at the head of the Persian Gulf, threatening Kuwait and potentially upsetting a delicate balance of power in the Gulf region.
``The trip will be seen as a symbol of the US commitment to the region,'' one Washington-based Middle East analyst says. ``But that message is also intended to be heard in Tehran.''
A senior Reagan administration official says that commitment could extend to outright US support if the Gulf is threatened militarily.
``If asked [by the Gulf states], the United States is prepared to help them help themselves,'' this official warns. Three states on Bush's itinerary -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman -- are members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
White House officials say two Middle East visits by Bush -- one to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt to shore up the peace process, the other to the Persian Gulf -- have been planned for months.
But the collapse of the Middle East peace process, plus what US officials regard as a turn for the worse in the Iran-Iraq war, has refocused US attention on the Persian Gulf. Thus, what was planned as the second of two trips has now become the first, as Bush travels to reaffirm US support for rich allies on the Arabian Peninsula.
In addition to security concerns, Bush is expected to discuss various bilateral commercial and financial matters with his Gulf Arab hosts, focusing in particular on the state of the world oil market. Prices on the world market have fallen precipitously in recent weeks, largely because of big increases in Saudi production.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Bush said he would not ask the Saudis to reduce production levels. Instead, Bush -- a former Texas oil company executive -- is expected to urge the Saudis to rely more on market forces to help stabilize world oil prices. Recent oil price decreases have devastated the US energy industry, sending profits and most oil stock prices plummeting.
Bush will also press for increased cooperation in combating international terrorism. The Bush visit begins amid news of Libyan interest, communicated through various intermediaries including Saudi Arabia, in starting a diplomatic dialogue with the United States. In Riyadh, Bush is expected to disclaim flatly any US interest in talks with Libyan leader Qaddafi.
The vice-president is also expected to deny reports that the US sought Egypt's participation in a military operation against Libya.
The US has a strategic relationship in the form of arms sales, base access agreements, or arrangements for joint maneuvers with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain. Citing the growing Iranian threat to the Gulf region, President Reagan has notified Congress that he intends to sell 2,500 new antiaircraft and antiship weapons to the Saudis, leader of the GCC.
Bush's fourth stop, in North Yemen, is described as part of an effort to improve relations with a strategically situated, but largely ignored, nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Last January's coup and subsequent civil war in neighboring South Yemen, plus new oil discoveries that could turn North Yemen into a major oil exporter within five years, have heightened US interest in reinforcing security and commercial relations with the government in Sana.
Notably absent on Bush's itinerary is Kuwait, the country most vulnerable to Iranian attack. In remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Bush blamed scheduling difficulties for the omission. Privately, some US and outside Middle East experts say the omission may be calculated to avoid trouble.
``Given the fact the Kuwait's on the front line, a visit by the vice-president might taken by Iran as a provocation,'' one private analyst says.
Before joining Bush in Saudi Arabia, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy will visit Kuwait, together with the remaining members of the GCC.
Many analysts say that it is unlikely that Iran will carry its current offensive into the Arabian Peninsula.
Such a move would alienate even radical Arab states including Syria, which relies heavily on Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti aid. Even in the absence of such diplomatic constraints, the opening a new front would stretch Iranian resources too thin.
Still, Iranian threats are not entirely discounted by US officials. Tehran has issued warnings of reprisals to the Gulf states, which have given billions in aid, plus logistical and political support, to shore up the Iraqi war effort.