The two superpowers are far from being eyeball-to-eyeball in the Persian Gulf. But the United States is already blinking like crazy -- presumably because of domestic politics.
The Russians initiated the move toward confrontation in the Persian Gulf by the invasion of Afghanistan in the last week of December. Since then they have poured some 90,000 troops into that country, seized the cities and the main towns and pushed to the borders of Iran and Pakistan.
Undoubtedly Moscow has incurred some costs. Russian casualties seem to be running at several hundred weekly. A conference of Islamic countries condemned the Soviet action. American food and technology shipments have been severely curtailed. A cloud hangs over the Olympics scheduled for Moscow.
Still, all signs indicate the Russians are not backing down. They have planted talk of token troop withdrawals chiefly to advance collateral diplomatic objectives.
The Indian subcontinent is the chief focus of Soviet diplomatic efforts. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi last week, and the two, according to an Indian spokesman, "reaffirmed their determination to develop and strengthen Indian-Soviet relations."
Pakistan was warned by Gromyko that it would be subject to Soviet military pressure if it joined the United States and China in supporting the Afghanistan resistance. He also held out hope to Pakistan that it might cut a deal in Moscow and New Delhi. Pakistan's interest, Gromyko asserted, lies in "maintaining good and friendly relations with all neighboring countries."
Western Europe received from Moscow, in many different ways, the same kind of double message. If the Europeans joined the United States in condemning Russia, Moscow intimated, detente would be lost. But if the Europeans withheld support from Washington, they could still enjoy all the fruits, including peace, of good relations with Russia.
The firmness of American diplomacy, given Russia's carrot-and-stick tactics, has an obvious impact on the decisions made by this country's friends and allies around the world. In some respects, Washington clearly showed strength and determination. During the past week agreements for naval and air facilities near the Persian Gulf were worked out in principle with Oman, Somalia and Kenya. Though somewhat belatedly, a battalion of Marines has been dispatched from the Pacific and by the middle of next month will be cruising with American naval vessels in the area.
But on a wide range of other matters, Washington showed hesitation, even weakness. The president's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made a great show of his recent visit to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But he returned without tying up any military accords.
The military draft became the occasion for a distinct step backward. Carter had called for registration in his State of the Union message as a sign to the allies of American determination. But in the Maine caucuses, students came out and voted against Carter apparently to show opposition to the draft. In his news conference last week, the president asserted that he was calling for registration only as a technical matter, not as a step toward the draft. He said, "We are not advocating the draft."
Cancellation of the summer Olympics had also been threatened -- as a symbol of determination -- if Russia did not withdraw from Afghanistan by Feb. 20. But when it became clear that only a dozen or so countries would veto the games by that date, the White House moved to postpone the deadline until the last possible day for refusing to go to Moscow -- May 24. As a headline on one dispatch from the Winter Games in Lake Placid put it: "White House Words Have Slushy Feel."
Most important of all, there is the matter of the hostages in Tehran. The president has already accepted the Iranian demand that as a condition of release there be an international inquiry into the misdeeds of the shah. Instead of punishing those who seized the hostages, Carter is acquiescing in their reward.
A critical issue now is whether the president will stand up to the repeatedly stated desire of the Iranians to implicate this country in what they call the shah's "open crime." The signs do not suggest strong resistance by Carter. Since the hostages are still held, he has already agreed to negotiate under duress. Then there was the curious response made at the news conference to a question that had as its premise illegitimate interference in Iran by the Eisenhower administration. It is not exactly reassuring -- indeed, it smacks of appeasement -- that the president, far from denying the premise of the question, brushed off the whole matter as "ancient history."
Perhaps there are good foreign policy reasons for all the backing and filling. But the unsteadiness seems unlikely to impress the Russians or reassure friends in Europe and the Persian Gulf area. So it is hard to down suspicion that the administration is less concerned about the position of the United States in the world than the position of Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire.