To get troops home for election, Reagan must act warily in Mideast
The idea behind last Sunday's American bombing attack on the Syrians was that it would catch their attention and induce them to be more cooperative about Lebanon.
But the operation did not go off quite as planned. Instead of impressing Syria with American military power, and willingness to use it, the aftermath is a bicker in Washington over how the United States Navy lost two aircraft out of 28 in the attack.
And Syrian gunners came off with the military honors. They not only brought down the two US fighter-bombers, but also, two days later, they claimed to have downed two Israeli drones. (The Israelis admitted losing one.)
Add that the Italians were shaken by the American action into talking about bringing half their own ''peacekeeping'' forces out of harm's way. And there were angry demands in Britain's Parliament for a similar British withdrawal.
There remains an American dream plan in which peace arrives in the Middle East just in time for the 1984 elections.
It isn't altogether pie in the sky. One of many interesting recent developments in the Middle East is the loss by the PLO's Yasser Arafat of his more fanatical and belligerent right-wing elements. They remain behind in Syria and under Syrian discipline in Lebanon while he and his more moderate followers move on to a friendlier environment. He has lost much prestige and support. But, assuming he gets safely out of Tripoli, where he still was at time of writing, he is freer than he was a year ago to move toward peace with Israel - if he chooses.
Might he make such a move? He could authorize King Hussein of Jordan to enter into talks with the Israelis on behalf of the Palestinians. With such permission from Arafat, King Hussein would be free to do so - provided the Israelis show some sign of being willing to be serious about autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank.
Is Israel moving toward a point where it just might be willing to compromise over the West Bank and Gaza? The answer to that question may lie deep inside the cloud of ambiguity which was spun around the previous week's visit of Israel's Yitzhak Shamir to Washington.
At the time of the visit Mr. Shamir promised nothing on the record in return for the military cooperation and extra aid which Reagan bestowed upon him. And afterward Mr. Shamir insisted that there had been no ''secret clause'' behind the agreement between Israel and the US.
But is it reasonable to think that Reagan gave so much to the Israelis and asked in return only their implicit support during next year's American elections? Was there perhaps a quiet understanding that if King Hussein, with Mr. Arafat's public blessing, is willing to talk, that Mr. Shamir will find a way to call off more building of housing for Israelis on the West Bank? And of course, during the playing out of such a scenario, perhaps the US marines could come home from Lebanon.
To have it all work out so nicely requires the cooperation of the Syrians. King Hussein of Jordan would hesitate to enter into serious peace talks with Israel without the consent of his more powerful neighbor.
Reagan chose this moment to authorize the Navy's air strike on Syrian antiaircraft and command positions in Lebanon. It was presented as a ''reprisal'' for Syrian antiaircraft fire at US reconnaissance planes the day before. It was supposed to show that the US is determined to work toward an independent Lebanon and will use its own force to that end, in cooperation with Israel.
This was, of course, only a skirmish. Obviously, US Navy attacked with insufficient knowledge of Syrian antiaircraft weapons in the area. The result, which included one US Navy pilot killed and another taken prisoner, underlined a fact. US military power in the Middle East is in a different environment than when used in the Caribbean or in Central America.
Was Reagan's White House so pleased with the way the invasion of Grenada turned out that it thinks it can do much the same in the Middle East? But Grenada is a long way from Soviet air power. Moscow had no means of contesting the American invasion of Grenada. Nor can Moscow do anything decisive to help Nicaragua against the support Reagan is giving to its rebels.
Grenada and Nicaragua, also Cuba, live under the umbrella of US air power. In any showdown, the US holds the high cards in the region.
But the military factors are different in the Middle East. The Soviets have plenty of medium-and long-range air power in the Crimea. Syria and Lebanon are under the potential canopy of Soviet bombers. Syria is less than 300 miles from Soviet territory.
Besides, the Syrians seem to have learned a lot about handling antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles since the 1982 fighting when they failed to bring down a single Israeli plane. And the Soviets have since given them newer and more effective weapons.
President Reagan's use of military power to support his diplomacy does seem to be paying off in Central America. The Nicaraguan regime is at least making noises about cleaning up its act. It purports to be ready to invite political moderates back into the political process, to hold open elections, to liberate political prisoners, and to grant amnesty to many of its opponents.
Official Washington is skeptical as to how serious are the reforms. But the apparent offer of reforms seems to show that US military power can work in Central America in support of diplomacy. The Middle East is a different place. Results may be less easily obtained.