The Arab world, one year after it joined here in a hard-line front to combat the Camp David accords, is watching from the curb as President Anwar Sadat of Egypt moves steadily down the road toward peace with Israel.
None of the Arab kings and presidents who gathered at the Baghdad summit to condemn Sadat's policies has gone back on his opposition to the Egyptian leader's solitary diplomacy. At the same time, however, none has been able to organize any initiative, either alone or in concert with his brethren to alter Sadat's course or replace his negotiations with a forum more acceptable to the rest of the Arab world.
As a result, the peace negotiations set up at Camp David and in the March 26 Egyptian-Israeli treaty have imposed themselves as the context in which the bitterest enemies of Sadat and U.S. mediation are voicing their criticisms. Even here in Iraq -- which rejects the whole idea of bargaining over the West Bank -- the state radio and newspapers make headline news out of talks amont "the zionist entity, the Sadat regime and the United States;"
Visits to several Arab capitals show that most of Sadat's opponents seem only to be waiting to see what happens as the Palestinian autonomy taks under special U.S. envoy Robert Strauss wind toward crucial decisions on the definition of Palestinian self-rule and the status of Jerusalem.
Viewed from one angle, the passive Arab role marks a triumph for U.S., Egyptian and Israeli diplomacy. It has become the only game in the Middle East. Viewed from another, however, it increases the chances of painful consequences should the negotiations on which so much attention is focused result in an outcome the Arabs regard as more treachery.
In a way, Sadat's Arab foes were almost bound to remain in his wake. Little united them except common fury over what the interpreted as a separate peace between Egypt and Israel that robbed the Arab camp of its largest, most influential and strongest member in the confrontation with Israel.
This has become increasingly apparent as individual reactions have been more finely etched over the summer of intermittent autonomy talks.
Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, for example, has eagerly sought a dialogue with the United States with the apparent hope of turning the negotiations into something it could participate in or at least condone. King Hussein of Jordan has quietly let it be known to U.S. diplomats that he will be around to help pick up the pieces and move on to the next step after what he regards as an inevitable breakdown in the current talks.
On the other end of the spectrum, Iraq and Libya have stuck to irredentist purity, insisting on transforming Israel and the West Bank into a lay Palestinian state that would become part of the Arab world but welcome Jews on equal footing with Moslems and Christians.
"A small state on the West Bank and Gaza is not possible," an Iraqi official explained. "It would be too small for all the Palestinians. They have thousands of lawyers, professors, doctors and all kinds of skilled workers. What would they do in such a small state? And the Israel that would result also would be too small for the Jews. Such an arrangement would inevitably be a source of conflict, don't you think?"
Somewhere in between have fallen the Syrians and the Saudis. Both have remained aloof from the Camp David process, in line with the Baghdad resolutions. At the same time, both are ruled by prudent leaders who observers believe could be persuaded to join peace negotiations if they were accepted by the PLO and contained a promise of compromise on Jerusalem;
Aside from the momentary nature of their agreement, the Baghdad countries also have been prevented from working effectively against Sadat by tensions within and across their own borders.
Perhaps the most dramatic example is the shipment of Egyptian military supplies to King Hassan of Morocco for use against Polisario guerrillas in the Sahara Desert. Hassan's request for aid, and Sadat's swift positive response, mark the first overt breech in the Arab boycott against Egypt.
Nearby, Algeria's new President Chadi Benjedid seems less able and willing to play the prominent anti-Sadat role assumed by his deceased predecessor, Houari Boumediene.
More importantly, a potentially strong eastern axis promised by talk of union or at least coordination between Syria and Iraq has been compromised by suggestions that Syria was involved in an attempt in July to overthrow President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
President Hafez Assad is reported to have offered personal guarantees to Hussein that Damascus had nothing to do with the troubles in Baghdad and observers here point out that Iraq never officially accused Syria. Unity talks between the two neighbors have been suspended, however, and Assad recently told an interviewer that the entire effort has been shelved for the time being.
In addition, both nations have internal strains. Hussein recently had 21 government officials shot because of what he said was a plot to topple him. In Syria, Assad is faced with renewed tension between the Sunni Moslem majority and his own Alawite Moslem minority.
It is the threat of renewed rivalry between Baghdad and Damascus that throws up the biggest obstacle to coordinated Arab action against Sadat. Other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, could be reluctant to join any call for new action from Baghdad if it could be interpreted in Damascus as taking sides in a Syrian-Iraqi quarrel.
These considerations could be overcome, however, if the autonomy talks lead to an agreement judged by Sadat's opponents as a new sellout to Israel. This is the general expectation in Baghdad, where Sadat is seen headed inexorably toward a deal with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in which the Palestinians are neglected.
"It is all leading up to something inevitable, and the Iraqis know this, said a knowledgeable diplomat here.
Whatever the talks lead to, the key to any renewed Arab action lies in Saudi Arabia, most Middle East specialists say. This is because the Saudis' oil -- and the United States' growing dependence on it -- gives them the ability to exercise pressure on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
In keeping with their traditional discretion, the Saudis have not yet drawn an explicit public link between oil production and Washington's actions in Middle East diplomacy. U.S. diplomats in the area agree, however, that the link is there,
Prince Fahd, who with the King Khalid runs the kingdom's oil and political affairs, is reliably reported to have been severely disappointed at Washington's retreat last month from an effort to broaden the autonomy talks by making it possible for moderate Palestinians to participate with PLO approval.
The translation of his disappointment at this or subsequent developments into an oil production drop this winter could turn out to be the only telling Arab reaction -- against Washington instead of Cairo. Israeli officials in Jerusalem say it is the one they fear most.