President Reagan would be the last leader in the world to pursue a course intended to give aid and comfort to the Soviet Union. But, paradoxical as it may seem, American diplomacy in the Middle East risks doing just that. Because the United States has been unable to achieve its declared objectives in Lebanon and in Palestine, the Russians are again making inroads into a region from which they had to a large extent been shut out.
The stakes for Washington these days are thus much larger than a simple withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon or establishment of a Palestinian homeland in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They raise a fundamental geopolitical question: Is there to be a stable, peaceful Middle East in which every nation - Muslim or Jewish - can determine its own political future free of the Machiavellian maneuverings of Moscow? Or is there to be an increasingly contentious Middle East in which political fanaticism and religious extremism seek to destabilize existing governments and political conflict provides the soil for increased Soviet penetration?
A quick look at history may be helpful.
In the past decade the enhanced position of the US in the Middle East has been accompanied by a corresponding decline of Soviet influence. At the time of the Yom Kippur war, Washington skillfully stepped in to play the mediator. Secretary of State Kissinger prevailed on Israel to accept a military stalemate in the interests of a future peace settlement. Through a round of step-by-step shuttle diplomacy following that conflict, the US worked out military disengagement agreements: first Israel-Egypt, then Israel-Syria. Five years later President Sadat took a leap of faith and negotiated peace with Israel. As a result of the Camp David accords, Egypt - which of course had already thrown the Russians out - drew even closer to the US.
But the Camp David marathon had yet to be completed. Because the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Arab allies rejected the Camp David formula for autonomy of the West Bank, the US could not persuade Jordan to join the peace talks. Meantime the Begin government, at loggerheads with President Carter over interpretation of the Camp David agreements, proceeded to pursue its own objectives, launching a program of gradual Jewish colonization of the West Bank and ultimately invading Lebanon to deal the PLO guerrillas a blow and establish a political foothold on Israel's northern border. All, it might be added, contrary to US wishes.