SECRETARY of State James Baker spoke hopefully last week of organizing a regional security alliance in the Mideast, roughly along the lines of NATO. Given the current multinational effort against Iraq, the secretary's idea had an aura of credibility. That aura, however, is largely dispelled by the gusts of both history and popular politics in the region. Diplomats only have to reflect back a few decades to recall the ill-fated Baghdad Pact and the dashed hopes of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for a Mideast security arrangement involving Britain and the US. Would an attempt along similar lines today have any greater chance of success?
It's not likely, because of two still-dominant trends in Arab thinking: (1) deep-set concern, based on a century of experience, that European and Western powers remain intent on establishing hegemony over Arab lands in the region; and (2) ingrained distrust of the United States springing from its strong support for Israel.
The first concern seems enigmatic to many Westerners. Neither the US, Britain, nor any other Western power avows an intention to exercise control over Mideastern territory. But many Arabs have none-too-distant memories of times when such motivations were rampant, and they see in the present crisis a US-led drive to control a prime Arab asset - oil. In Saddam Hussein they see a leader who, while ruthless in his methods, at least stands up to the Western powers.
The second concern, US support for Israel, gives rise to suspicions that any talk in Washington about greater security in the region translates into greater security for Israel - and therefore less for its Arab neighbors.
At the heart of such feelings is the friction between Israelis and Palestinians, friction that will be a source of continuing conflict however the Persian Gulf crisis is resolved.
No practical discussion of a Mideast security arrangement can exclude the core Palestinian issue. Talks between Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Secretary Baker struck a positive note when the two agreed that the Middle East peace process - which should mean the process bringing Israelis and Palestinians together at the negotiating table - must be restarted.
That process could strengthen the security of all peoples in the region, and weaken the ability of demagogues to play to longstanding Arab suspicions of Western duplicity.