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Arab disillusionment with the American giant

It is increasingly difficult for an American to walk the streets of the Arab world. The warm hospitality and open friendliness with which Arabs have traditionally greeted Americans have for the first time begun to give way to a cool reserve and resentment. For official Americans, there has been outright hostility as telephone and mail threats have flooded United States diplomatic missions in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Having just returned from a three-week trip to the Arab countries of the Gulf , I found the people there increasingly upset with the US, which in their view rested on the sidelines for two months while the Israelis wreaked havoc on the people of Lebanon. Arabs now are less willing to draw distinctions between the American people and the policies of the US government. As one merchant in Dubai asked me: ''Was any of your tax money used to buy the cluster bombs that the Israeli air force used to murder Arab women and children?''

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The US does not have an abundance of friends in the third world these days. This has been especially true in the Middle East where American policy has been characterized by a preoccupation with the Soviet Union to the exclusion of regional realities, an increasing emphasis on military might rather than on political understanding, and a much stronger commitment to Israel than to the 300 million Muslims who inhabit the area.

Despite this, most Arabs have clearly preferred the US to the Soviet Union and had managed to convince themselves that America really meant well and that its policy would shift one day soon. The Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon has changed this tolerant mindset and Arabs are today deeply disillusioned and angry. In countries throughout the region, Arab men, women, and children watched in horror as other Arab men, women, and children in Lebanon suffered and died before their very eyes on television.

To the Arab, there are two fundamental realities about the recent war. First, Israel has killed and injured thousands of Arabs in a military mismatch that has seen hospitals, schools, mosques, homes, and refugee camps relentlessly bombed. Second, Israel has utilized American aircraft, missiles, and bombs to inflict this destruction. It is extremely difficult to explain American policy to Arabs who ask why the US waited 10 weeks before it pressured Israel to end the bloodshed. Why, they query, did it take 10 hours of Israeli saturation bombing of west Beirut on Aug. 12 before America finally acted with firmness? Why did America not halt the Israeli war machine much earlier?

One influential foreign minister in the Gulf told me that after the Israeli attack the American ambassador in his country called on him to say that the US did not approve of the Israeli actions. This stunned and infuriated the Arab minister, who indicated that he would rather have heard the argument that America approved of the attack. Then, he said, ''we would at least have known where the United States stood.'' Few Arabs believe that the US did not quietly approve of the invasion and occupation. Otherwise, the foreign minister said, the US is truly ''a giant without arms.'' In his view, the American giant apparently grew arms after 10 weeks of Israeli aggression.

The difference between the events of the summer of '82 and earlier American Middle East policy rests in the fact that this time Israel has compromised US interests by alienating America's closest friends in the region. Countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have been deeply hurt and embarrassed by what they consider American complicity in the tragic events in Lebanon. Many individuals who were known to be pro-American have turned their backs in disgust on their old friend. In so doing, they have left the field to the enemies of the US. This could contribute to a new level of extremism and violence in the Middle East - an extremism and violence that will be directed against America.

Although the Isrealis may have gained a dramatic if bloody short-term military victory, they also have struck a serious blow against America's reputation in the region. They have managed to drive a small wedge between the US and such important countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This wedge will almost certainly cut deeper with time. The long-term consequences of this policy will be devastating to American interest in a world of 1 billion Muslims.

It is in this sense that Israeli leaders are the architects of a new kind of ''ugly Americanism'' in the Mideast. The damage can be limited only if the US giant is willing and able to grow arms that will be used to protect American interests, when challenged by Arab or Israeli. Mr. Reagan's September 1 speech indicates the giant may have been stirred.

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