THE raging debate in Washington and elsewhere, over the Iran-arms deal should be an opportunity to rethink the United States strategic posture in the Middle East. Indeed, the episode has revealed a major problem of US Middle East policy: the lack of an initiative based on a clear strategic conception. For four years, the administration has been content with a policy of damage control or crisis containment - bordering on ``benign neglect'' - with regard to the three major spots of tension in the region, the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanon crisis, and the Palestinian problem. Indeed, the administration's policy on terrorism was an example of focusing on the manifestation of the problem rather than the underlying sources of the conflict. The arms deal, though ill conceived and poorly carried out, was at least a break from the passive policy that the administration has adopted for four years. No doubt the US should not ignore an important country like Iran. There is a definite need for an initiative toward the moderate elements in Tehran. But in the absence of a regional strategic conception such an initiative might have been more damaging than useful.
First, it underlined the credibility gap that US policy has been suffering from in the Middle East. Not only did it embarrass Arab friends of the US - in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere - but it also confirmed their worst fears that the US is following Israeli strategy in the region. Indeed, the arms deal has blurred the distinction - at least in the Arab minds - between the Israeli and American agenda for the region.