THE Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has presented Arab diplomacy with its biggest challenge. Arab reaction to the invasion, in sharp contrast to that from outside the region, has been both slow and divided.
``The rest of the world was quick to condemn the attack,'' commented Al-Ahram, the authoritative Egyptian newspaper, ``while the Arabs wasted two days in consultations.''
The shock of what had happened in Kuwait was felt most keenly in the Arab Gulf states, whose reticence to condemn Iraq, according to Western diplomats, was based on fear. To provoke Iraqi anger, it was felt, might be to court a visit from the Iraqi Army.
However, in the end the Gulf states had no choice but to condemn Iraq. The Gulf Cooperation Council had been humiliated by its inability to come to the assistance of one of its members at a time when its territorial integrity had been challenged. ``For them to have remained silent,'' a diplomat in Bahrain said, ``would have been impossible.''
The Gulf states made their protest once they were assured that a similar stand was being taken by Egypt and other powerful states in the region.
Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, meanwhile, could not agree on a resolution on the Kuwait crisis that would win the support of all 21 members.
``They frankly did not know what to do about Iraq,'' an Arab diplomat in Cairo said. ``Getting 14 Arab countries to condemn Iraq and call for the invasion force to be withdrawn was the best they could come up with.''
Significantly, Jordan voted against the resolution. King Hussein did not agree with other Arab leaders on how Saddam Hussein should be handled.
King Hussein is a frequent visitor to Baghdad. Throughout the Gulf war with Iran he was a loyal supporter of Saddam Hussein. He allowed vital supplies for the Iraqi war effort to be imported through Aqaba on the Red Sea when Iraq lost its access to the Gulf.
The King considered it essential to keep open at least one avenue to Baghdad in the hope that Saddam Hussein could be persuaded to join diplomatic efforts to defuse the Gulf crisis.
Jordan's role of go-between was confirmed yesterday when Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran said that both President Bush and Saudi King Fahd had asked King Hussein to mediate.
King Hussein flew to Baghdad the day after the start of the invasion and convinced the Iraqi leader that he should take part in talks with other Arab leaders - and possibly even the deposed Emir of Kuwait - in the Saudi city of Jeddah at the weekend.
However, the Jeddah summit was scuttled, Mr. Badran said yesterday because of the premature Arab League censure of Iraq.
However, Arab League states - including Egypt and Saudi Arabia - came out with a strong condemnation of Iraq Saturday, leaving the Iraqi leader with little enthusiasm for the talks in Jeddah, Western diplomats said.
That same day the Iraqis made it clear that the ruling Sabah family would never be allowed to hold power in Kuwait again, referring to them contemptuously as ``the extinct regime.''
In this atmosphere, reconciliation talks were out of the question. And the Kuwaitis were left increasingly frustrated that their appeals for help from their Arab brothers had not been answered.
``Those states which voted against the Arab League resolution,'' a minister in the former Kuwaiti government, Abdel Rahman al-Awadi said in Cairo, ``have good relations with Saddam Hussein and think they might benefit from what has happened. But I am sure that those countries are going to be next in line for his deception and aggression.''
The new Iraqi-supported ``free government'' in Kuwait, meanwhile, expressed its ``deep gratitude and thanks'' for what it called Iraq's ``pan-Arab decision and lofty Arab initiative'' in sending in its troops.
This statement was clearly based on fanciful thinking. Such pan-Arab reaction as there was had been critical of the Iraqi move.
But the hard truth was that the Arabs had run out of options.
Kuwait wanted a military response. However, no single Arab state, Western diplomats noted, offered to take on the might of the Iraqis.
Saddam Hussein has shown that he is willing to sweep aside conventional restraints and use whatever force may be necessary to achieve his goals. To incur Iraqi wrath, therefore, would be a dangerous gamble.
``You should know by now how Saddam Hussein behaves,'' Mr. Awadi said. ``He promised us a week ago through all the Arab leaders that he was not intending any military action. One day we were discussing our problems with his delegation in Jeddah. The next day he was invading us.''
Another reason for Arab reluctance in confronting Iraq stems from a different fear. While Saddam Hussein is vewed negatively in the West and is disliked and feared by most Arab leaders, among sections of the ordinary Arab population he enjoys considerable support. He is admired for his militant attitude toward Israel and its Western supporters, particularly the United States.
The threat made by the Iraqi leader earlier this year to use chemical weapons to wipe out ``half of Israel'' if the Israelis launched an attack on Iraq won loud applause in the Arab world.
``Therefore,'' a senior Arab official admitted privately, ``the regimes have to be careful what they say about Saddam Hussein.'' Furthermore, the confiscation of the riches of the ruling family of Kuwait will not be universally condemned by the Arab public.
The rulers of the small oil states are regarded with both envy and contempt by many Arabs. In the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources say, there was ``a certain degree of satisfaction'' at the Iraqi invasion. ``Here was an Arab leader backing up his words with actions. He seems to be the only political leader in the Arab world who could stand up to Israel.''
In general, though, the Palestinians will get little satisfaction from the events in Kuwait. The crisis deflects international attention from the search for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Diplomats in the Middle East expect another side effect of the Kuwait crisis to be the emergence from political isolation of Syria and Iran - both enemies of Iraq. Each expects to benefit from the need felt by Arab states for counter-balances to Iraq. Both hope too that the West will court their friendship for the same reasons.
[According to Reuters, a Kuwaiti diplomat said yesterday that Iraq had moved from Kuwait to Baghdad 15 Shiite Muslim prisoners whose freedom has long been demanded by Lebanese groups holding Western hostages in Beirut.
``They are going to use them as bargaining counters,'' said Faisal Mukhaizem, Kuwait's charg'e d'affaires in Amman.
A Western witness told Reuters from Kuwait City yesterday that the 15 Shiites were among 1,300 inmates who had broken out of Salidia Central Prison after the Iraq invasion.]