Washington is doing suddenly what it should have been doing long since. It is giving top attention to the Middle East and to the problem of keeping open the shipping lanes that carry the oil of Arabia to the factories, highways, and homes of the Western industrial world.
The bullets that cut down Anwar Sadat in Cairo on Oct. 6 have galvanized Washington into doing everything its leaders can think of to make up for lost time and lost opportunities in the Middle East.
In fact, President Reagan's men are so concerned about the new uncertainties of that part of the world that they have not yet faced up to another event elsewhere that has equally disturbing long-range implications.
There was a mass rally in Bonn last Saturday. It was said to have been the largest in West Germany since World War II. Estimates ran to 250,000 persons. Nominally, it was aimed against the arms race in both East and West. But the overtones were anti-American. And 60 members of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party in the Bundestag were among the protestors.
Anti-Americanism has reached politically significant proportions in West Europe, in black Africa, in much of the rest of the third world, and particularly in the Middle East. It is there, where the symptoms are most apparent, that Washington's leaders are most active.
The Americans have promised a quick airlift of weapons to the Sudan, which is believed threatened by Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. They are offered more weapons to Egypt's new leader, President Hosni Mubarak, including the loan of two AWACS surveillance planes. They have redoubled their efforts to clear through the Senate their plan to sell modern weapons to Saudi Arabia. They have enlisted three former Presidents -- Nixon, Ford, and Carter -- in that cause.
Perhaps of even more importance to the future of stability and peace in the Middle East, they have asked Israel to speed up the return to Egypt of the last part of the Sinai Peninsula still held by Israel, and due to be returned next April. They have asked Israel to refrain from expanding the existing Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory. They have urged Israel to move forward under the Camp David formula toward the earliest possible grant of political autonomy to the Arabs of the occupied territories.
The above actions are aimed first at hanging on to the association between Washington and Cairo that developed during the Sadat era. The longer range purpose is to help to make respectable in the eyes of other Arabs the association of Egypt with Israel.
Israel, too, was first shocked and then moved to consider fresh initiatives.
Egypt's new President Mubarak has been quick to promise both Washington and Tel Aviv that he would honor Mr. Sadat's commitments and would keep the peace with Israel. But Egypt's isolation in the Arab world is a pressure on him that he may not be as able to resist as did Mr. Sadat.
One measure of that isolation was that only three other Arab or North African states sent representatives to the funeral -- the Sudan, Oman, and Somalia. The Sudan and Somalia are near neighbors. Oman is a lesser Gulf sheikhdom. Most of the other important Arab and North African states -- including Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and even usually pro-Western Kuwait -- were not there at the funeral.
To the other Arabs Mr. Sadat had betrayed the Arab cause in Palestine by making peace with Israel without first getting back all the Israeli-occupied territories and gaining freedom for the Palestine Arabs.
Mr. Sadat was a hero in the West, and a friend in Israel. But he was not mourned in the Arab community. There was little visible mourning in Egypt itself. There was rioting up the Nile at Asyut by Islamic fundamentalists. Cairo was full of rumors. Security forces were out in force.
Right-wing Israelis wanted to anticipate the worst for Israel by hanging on to the remaining slice of Sinai. But in government quarters the talk was of resumption of talks with Egypt over autonomy for West Bank Arabs. There were even hints that Prime Minister Menachem Begin had softened his position on autonomy for West Bank Arabs, although this was later repudiated by Mr. Begin's office.
The essential fact is that Egypt's new President will have a difficult time establishing his political position in Egypt unless he can regain the recognition and the support of at least the more moderate Arab countries. That means, above all, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Egypt is the most populous of the Arab countries. In times past it has usually been considered the leader of the Arab community. But under Mr. Sadat it lost even diplomatic recognition. It has been isolated. That isolation plays into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt.
A fresh flow of American weapons and American economic aid may help Mr. Mubarak get his government underway. But American friendship and support may also be a long-term liability. The Islamic fundamentalists are anti-American. To them a materialistic America is an enemy of Islamic virtue and culture.
Washington has been quick to offer guns -- guns to Sudan, to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia. But can it be as quick to offer the one thing that could allay some of the anti-Americanism rampant in the Arab countries? That one thing would be pressure on Israel to think and move in terms of ultimate withdrawal from occupied territories.
Without progress toward ultimate Israeli withdrawal Mr. Mubarak is likely to face increasing political opposition at home and continued isolation from most of the Arab countries. How long can be take the pressure from outside when the political ground under his own feet gets softer?
Washington and Tel Aviv have a lot of homework to do if they are to keep the present peace between Israel and Egypt alive.
Washington also has a lot of homework to do if it is going to overcome its own growing political unpopularity among the most important NATO countries of Western Europe.
The Reagan administration's emphasis on weapons (prominent in its most recent reactions to the Sadat assassination) is a liability even to the most friendly governments in Western Europe, and a propaganda asset to Moscow. and its obvious sympathy for white-ruled South Africa has undermined America's friends in black Africa.
Mr. Reagan's domestic policies are running into increasing questioning on Capitol Hill in washington. At such a time it would be helpful if the rest of the world were stable and tranquil.
The passing of Egypt's Anwar Sadat from the scene is only one of many signs of unrest and instability in the world. Mr. reagan, unfortunately for himself, will have to spend more time on foreign affairs in the foreseeable future.