Stripped of rhetoric, the paramount American interest in the Middle East is to prevent the region from falling under the domination of the Soviet Union. Were Moscow, or even its radical allies in the region, allowed to establish dominance of acquire a strangle-hold on the West's sources of petroleum, either at the wellhead or at various oil route chokepoints, the economies of the major industrial states would be jeopardized and the capacity of NATO and Japan to resist Soviet pressure would be dangerously impaired. Indeed, any American government which allowed oil supplies to its allies to be placed in question would almost certainly invite the neutralization of Western Europe and Japan, the encirclement of China, and -- eventually -- its own isolation.

The critical importance of the Middle East to American global interests should be obvious, and yet the policies of our goverment continue to gradual erosion of our influence and power in the region. Today, the Soviet Union is capitalizing on a vast military buildup by raising the level of risk in accordance with its perception of the strategic balance. The Soviet fleet now has the run of the Mediterranean, free access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and is extending it global reach.

This assertion of Soviet military power at both ends of the Middle East is evident in their string of bases and naval facilities in Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, Ethiopia and Libya. The armies of all these countries are largely dependent on Soviet equipment. The recent turmoil in Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey -- all bordering upon the Soviet Union -- is ominous. Each of these non-Arab states is crucial to the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the West, and in each case chaos means a gain for the Kremlin and a deficit for American interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. record is one of understatement and miscalculation regarding the extent of Soviet capabilities and Soviet interest in affecting or controlling the flow of oil from the Middle East, in base rights and in defense pacts. Swayed by the misleading abstraction of "detente," our policymakers have yet to achieve a clear understanding of the Soviet role in the region. Moscow's objectives and intentions continue to be viewed as opportunistic and not as an integral part of a major effort to alter the global balance of power.

The Iranian debacle is the most recent example of the extent to which U.S. indecision and ignorance of the challenge we face in the region obscure the true stakes. Continued instability fueled by our policies provides important opportunities to the Soviets to expand their sphere of influence and to deny or control oil resources vital to the Western economies. Meanwhile, those leaders in the area who have cast their fate with the United States now seriously question our political judgment and our ability and willingness to back our friends and to withstand threats to their survival. These developments, coupled with Brezhnev's unilateral public warning not to intervene in Iran, would indicate that the Soviet Union -- not the United States -- is poised to fill the power void left "East of Suez" by the British.

The Carter administration has yet to grasp that in this region conflict and tension are endemic, a condition traceable largely to the fragmented sectarian nature of Middle Eastern society. For example, territorial disputes among Arab states are persistent; ethnic and religious rivalries abound; conservative and radical attitudes regarding social change are continuously in conflict. The recent tragedy of the Lebanese civil war and the border war between the two Yemens earlier this year are two cases in point. Thus, the more critical issues dividing Arab states actually have little to do with Israel, even though the Jewish state has served as a convenient polemical rallying point in internal Arab conflicts.

The existence of Israel has served as a convenience for the Soviet Union as well, but Russian aims for control over the entire region existed long before Israel's birth in 1948. Without this bastion of liberal democracy in the heart of the area, the Kremlin would be confined to supporting militant regimes gainst pro-American conservative governments which would not be able to divert the attention and energies of the radicals away from themselves by using the "lightning rod" of the "Zionist State." Moreover, our own position would be weaker without the political and military assets Israel provides. Yet, American policy-makers downgrade Israel's geopolitical importance as a stabilizing force, as a deterrent to radical hegemony and as a military offset to the Soviet Union.

The fall of Iran has increased Israel's value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely; other pro-Western states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf kingdoms, are weak and vulnerable. Israel's strength derives from the reality that her affinity with the West is not dependent on the survival of an autocratic or capricious ruler. Israel has the democratic will, national cohesion, technological capacity and military fiber to stand forth as America's trusted ally.

With a democratic political system like our own we need have no fear of Israel's political stability or of the rise of a radical, anti-American leadership at her helm. Her intelligence services provide critical guidance to ongoing regional development, the technical know-how of her specialists could be used to service American equipment in a crisis, and her facilities and airfields could provide a secure point of access if required at a moment of emergency. Further, Soviet planners must constantly take into account the effective dominance of the Israeli forces and especially its air force, over critical zones of access and transit in the region. In a moment of crisis the knowledge that this air force can create a zone of danger and uncertainty to the U.S.S.R. must greatly restrict Soviet options and thereby facilitate the tasks of American planners.

Specific Arab states such as Egypt -- friendly to us at a particular moment -- may well be able and prepared to take a front-line position in defense of Western security interests. To the extent that one or more can participate, so much the better; but such secondary links cannot substitute for a strong Israel in the ever-turbulent Middle East.

Therefore, it is foolhardy to risk weakening our most critical remaining regional strategic asset. Yet, if administration policies should serve to weaken Israel either through building the basis for a radical Palestinian state on her borders or through providing her with insufficient military assistance, the tasks of Kremlin planners dealing with the Middle East would be enormously eased and a determined barrier to Soviet expansionism in the region would have been withdrawn.

Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being.