It was a week for huffing and puffing. A U.S. naval task force was playing chicken in the Gulf of Sidra with the Libyan "navy" as if this would bring down Muammar Qaddafi. In Washington, the Reagan administration, congressional leaders and conservative groupies were fawning over Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi as if he were a chief of state.
A fun time was had by all -- except the usual spoilsports who persist in thinking that Qaddafi is not quite the geopolitical menace the Reagan administration has cracked him up to be (and that the same goes for the Marxist government in Angola).
The spoilsports have this contrary notion that the United States needs help from Arabs as well as Israelis in the Middle East; that progress toward the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is important to the area's stability; that any loss of U.S. influence creates a vacuum the Soviets are poised and pleased to fill. So the spoilsports were concentrating their attention elsewhere.
They were watching the U.S. government pull the rug out from under Jordan's King Hussein, burning its bridges to so-called moderate Arabs and almost certainly dealing itself out of an effective role in any Arab-Israeli "peace process" for as far ahead as the eye can see.
At issue was a $1.9 billion sale to Jordan of some 40 U.S. jet fighters, more than 100 Stinger surface-to-air missiles and about a dozen Hawk antiaircraft missile units. Last year the administration was publicly plugging the deal as an "integral part" of the "peace process." As recently as October, Ronald Reagan was publicly thanking Hussein for "moving steadily and courageously forward" in search of a formula for peace talks with Israel.
True, right about then the prospect dimmedas tensions tightened over the Israeli attack on PLO headquarters in Tunis and the subsequent hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Knuckling under to the usual skillful scare tactics of the Israeli lobby, Congress was moving under its veto power to halt the arms deal with Jordan with the specious argument that the arms must be saved as a reward.
But the administration managed to put the question off until March of this year by way of giving diplomacy more time, and well into last month the "peace process" still showed vital signs. Secretary of State George Shultz sounded publicly upbeat; his man for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary Richard Murphy was actively on the case, meeting with Hussein in London and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the Hague.
And so I must confess I overdid a good-news report on the Middle East in this space recently, which goes to show the error of (a)underestimating the ability of the Israeli lobby to strike terror in the hearts of members of Congress in an election year; and (b)overestimating the Reagan administration's attention span. With hindsight, supporters of the arms sale to Jordan insist it could have been saved in the Senate by a presidential full- court press early in January. But Israel's supporters in both Houses wasted no time moving the necessary veto legislation along.
Result: In the same week that the U.S. fleet was playing cat and mouse with Qaddafi and Savimbi was the toast of this town, the Reagan administration and congressional leaders were quietly cutting a deal. If Congress would spare him the embarrassment of a nay vote, the president would withdraw the Jordanian arms- sale proposal indefinitely.
The diplomats blame the White House politicians, who lay it on congressional encroachment on presidential policy-making prerogatives. Dutifully, Israel's friends in Congress say it's Hussein's fault for not being able to deliver a proper Palestinian delegation, free of any taint of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Jordanians blame PLO chairman Yasser Arafat for not being in command. Arafat would probably blame the PLO hard-liners he has to live with.
When the scapegoating is all done, it is hard to remember who is the superpower in the picture, and still harder to figure out what there is left in the way of a coherent U.S. policy. There have been so many "last chances" for peace in the region that it is probably too much to say that this time a "last chance" truly has been lost. But none of the prospects now confronting the administration would seem to fit its stated purposes.
The Jordanians will be strongly impelled to buy arms from the British, the French -- or the Soviets. The threat those arms will pose to Israel will be only marginally less than the threat (if there ever was one) from the arms the administration wanted to provide. And the constancy of U.S. policy will be called all the more into question by weak, and often wobbly, would-be Arab friends whose trust is essential to any enduring U.S. effort to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East.