From Kremlin battlements the outlook is frustrating
It seems timely to take note of an interesting feature of the world's power landscape. The great Western cause of containing the range of Soviet power and influence is doing well - but not because of Washington's ''hard line'' or its rearmament building program.
The ''hard line'' has been vetoed and neutralized by the refusal of the NATO allies in Western Europe to collaborate with it. The rearmament program is being whittled back in the Congress and remains more a dream project than a practical reality.
And yet if Leonid Brezhnev were to look out at the world from the battlements of the Kremlin, he would have difficulty spotting any one place or operation where his interests are advancing.
The latest example is the Middle East. Once upon a time it could be assumed that no peace settlement would be possible there without the concurrence of Moscow. Over this past week the men of the Kremlin did their best to gain a voice in the maneuverings now going on over the future of Palestine.
But was anyone paying attention?
Mr. Brezhnev sent a cable to Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He congratulated him on the PLO's ''heroic'' defense of west Beirut. He asserted that ''the United States is trying to deny the Palestinians their sacred right to self-determination and to establishing their own state.''
But, do Mr. Arafat and the other leaders of the Arab community look to Moscow to further their interests in Palestine?
Over the past week Mr. Arafat and the others were looking to Washington. Jordan's King Hussein congratulated President Reagan on his ''fresh start'' program. The moderate Arab leaders were in daily communication with Washington. All of them were proceeding on the assumption that it is Washington, not Moscow, which has the means of persuading Israel to improve the prospects for Arabs in both Israel itself and in the occupied territories.
Moscow can send pretty postcards to the Arabs. It can roll out the red carpet for visiting Middle East leaders - such as South Yemen's Ali Nasser Mohammed this week - and warn them against the Reagan plan.
But Moscow has no leverage over Israel. Washington does.
The serious question about the future of Palestine is how and to what extent President Reagan in Washington will use his leverage to divert Menachem Begin from his plans to bring virtually all the occupied territories inside the frontiers of Israel.
Washington's immediate task in the Middle East was complicated this past week by the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon. Washington had been hoping that he could meld the fragments of the Lebanese community into some new kind of political unity. That in turn would presumably lead to the withdrawal of both Israel and Syrian armed forces from Lebanon.
That prospect is now set back. Israel has a new reason to keep its forces in Lebanon. That means that the Syrians will also want to stay on. Border skirmishes between the two foreign forces are more likely to escalate into a real war.
But this offers the Soviets little benefit. Washington may be able to head off that war. There is literally nothing Moscow can do that would either smother the war danger or help the Syrians win.
One reason is that Soviet weapons continue to show up poorly in the fighting in Lebanon. The Israelis continue to have the ability to knock out every new battery of SAM (surface-to-air) missiles the Soviets send to Syria. At latest reports the Israelis knocked out the latest new Soviet model, when the Syrians put it in Lebanon, as easily as they had knocked out earlier models.
Mr. Brezhnev, looking south from those Kremlin battlements, has had to see his country's weapons show up poorly not only in Lebanon but also in the Iran-Iraq war, which is about to enter its third year.
The Iraqis did well in the initial phase of the war. They invaded Iran successfully using their Soviet weapons against Iran's American weapons. But the Iranians recovered from the early defeats, drove the invaders back out of Iran, and have become themselves the attackers.
Weapons have been Moscow's major vehicle for influence spreading. But when American weapons win out over Soviet weapons, the influence value of the Soviets' weapons drops.
The very fact of the Iraq-Iran war helps contain Soviet influence in the Middle East. Moscow dare not commit itself to one against the other. It loses out in both. A total victory for Iraq would have helped Moscow. But the military revival of Iran, no thanks to Moscow, has spoiled that possible opportunity.
Let Mr. Brezhnev's gaze move left, and he sees his armies still unable to pacify Afghanistan after two and a half years of trying. Farther left, and he sees India slipping away from his sphere of influence. Due east, he could watch this week while Deng Xiaoping reshaped the leadership and the economic and political direction of China to his own taste.
The new directions in China were away from orthodox Marxism toward a pragmatism that looks to the West rather than Moscow for help in the modernization of China. Besides, Mr. Deng is no friend of the Soviet Union. His foreign friend is Richard Nixon.
In other, remoter quarters Mr. Brezhnev was still dominant in Vietnam and Cuba, but at a rising cost in economic and money aid. His client, Ethiopia, was still trying to conquer Eritrea, without much success. His agents in Central America are active and worry Washington. But there has been no drastic change to Moscow's advantage anywhere in Latin America.
About the only comfort for Mr. Brezhnev on the world scene right now is the fact that the European members of the NATO alliance decline to join Mr. Reagan in an economic ''cold war'' against the Soviet Union.
Soviet influence in the world has made no real gains since the invasion of Afghanistan. It is being contained, but more from its own weakness than from anything positive done in or by Washington.