As the United States bogs down further into the quagmire that is Lebanon, yet another country, Saudi Arabia, has appeared to act as mediator. Despite the joint sponsorship by the US and Saudi Arabia of the present tenuous cease-fire, relations between the Saudis and their formerly close ally have chilled. Behind the headlines of Druze attacks on US marines and the deepening split in PLO and Soviet support for Syria, the impact of the US presence in Lebanon on its alliance with Saudi Arabia has gone unnoticed.
The Lebanese nightmare is due in large part to the fact that all the parties involved in the conflict have a different perception of what the conflict means to their own vital interests. The Lebanese see the war as a communal conflict to decide the division of political power. Israel and the PLO see it as the prelude to a final struggle over Palestine. Syria's involvement in Lebanon has always been to strengthen its position within the realm of inter-Arab politics, and the US sees Lebanon largely in terms of the East-West struggle.
Now the Saudis have entered the scene. Their interest is to retore some stability to their northern border by acting as the spokesman for moderate Arabs and as a counterweight to Syrian influence.
Saudi Arabia in its role as peacemaker is venomous in its condemnation of US policy in Lebanon. In the eyes of the Saudis, the US has taken over where Israel stopped and will eventually deliver Lebanon into Israeli hands.
The Saudi position clearly reflects one of the basic problems with US policy in Lebanon - its close identification with the Gemayel government. Arabs generally identify Gemayel, not just as a Christian, but as anti-Arab and pro-Western. His government is synonymous with Western imperialism, which the Arabs blame for the loss of Jerusalem. Typical of the Saudis' public stance on the US peacekeeping role was editorial comment in the Arab News, the unofficial voice of Saudi Arabia's monarchy. The paper said it took the Lebanese war to expose the United States' Middle East policy for what it is.
''The United States threw all 'neutrality' to the wind, for the Arabs really to take a good look at its hideous features. There is no longer any doubt, the furtherance of Israel's interests is the actual reason for the presence of US troops there.''
In response to its perception of US policy in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has proceeded to distance itself from its once-close ally. In addition to the daily press invectives against the US, the Saudis have just completed the first military maneuvers ever held with its partners in the Gulf Cooperative Council, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The military exercises fulfilled more of a symbolic than military function - to serve notice on the West that the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors are prepared to stake out their own position without overdependence on the superpowers.
The US is also being hit economically. The blacklist of companies doing business with Israel is being enforced with an enthusiasm not seen for several years. By manipulating the blacklist, the Saudis can both express their displeasure with the US and strengthen their image as a leader of Arab solidarity against Israel.
What is dangerous about the present low ebb of US-Saudi relations is that it comes at a time when the US and Saudi Arabia both have much more at stake in the Strait of Hormuz than in Lebanon. Keeping the West's oil pipeline open and protecting the Saudis' income heads the list of both country's vital interests. But they also have a compatibility of interests in Lebanon - to stabilize the communal struggle before war breaks out between Israel and Syria, keeping the revolutionary, pro-Soviet regimes in check.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia can help provide the US a way out of its dead-end commitment to Lebanon. By ''Arabizing'' the conflict under moderate leadership with the tacit support of the West, several possibilities are opened up. The Gemayel government, no longer propped up by the international peacekeeping force , would have to grant some political power to the anti-Phalangist factions. The Soviets' serious mischiefmaking would be somewhat hamstrung, because they could no longer pit the West against the Arabs. And Syria would have to negotiate to preserve its position in the Arab power constellation or lose both its backing by the Arab League and its financial support from Saudi Arabia. The US would then be left to deal with Israel, not an easy thing to do in an election year. But with the current economic crisis and political dissension in Israel, even the Israelis might prove to be more malleable.
If the US does wiggle out of Lebanon unscathed, one would hope the Reagan administration will have learned that all global conflicts cannot be viewed in strictly East-West terms.