That the Mideast provides combustible matter for international conflageration akin to the Balkans prior to World Was I has now become almost a cliche. Two distinctive elements make it impossible to treat conditions in the Mideast with the indefference normally accorded to cliches. First, unlike the situation in the Balkans in the pre-World War I period (which prospectively involved only the prestige of the contending great powers), the vital interests of the West -- indeed, the entire free world -- are wholly engaged in continuing access to the energy resources of the Persian Gulf. Second, the existence and prospective further spread of nuclear weapons, which might be employed in a Mideast conflagration, geometrically add to the inherent danger of this tinderbox.

The raid on the Osirak research reactor near Baghdad significantly complicates the politics of the Mideast and reduces diplomatic maneuver room, especially for American diplomacy. Aside from the enhancement of Menachem Begin's electoral prospects -- a purely domestic matter -- the principal beneficiaries of this development are the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, the Khomeini regime in Iran, which may draw satisfaction from the humiliation of Saddam Hussein. Even the advertised goal sharply to circumscribe the spread of nuclear capabilities is, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, essentially transitory and probably paltry. On balance, the decision to strike has probably augmented the forces undermining Israel's international position. Begin has not merely demonstrated his disdain for his neighbors with whom Israel must ultimately coexist and for international opinion in general; he has placed his treaty partner, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in a most awkward position and has apparently been indifferent to the substantial embarrassment of Israel's protector, the United States. As a small state (unlike, say, the Soviet Union), Israel's ultimate survival cannot rest on a flagrant disregard for what Thomas Jefferson called a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.

The additional costs associated with the raid, regrettably, may be quickly listed: the aborting of the peace process (or what was left of it); additional reentry points for the Soviet Union into the region; the weakening of Arab moderates and the coalescence of the Arab world on more radical lines; the reinforcement of European distrust of America's policies and role in the Mideast, and a strengthening of Europe's desire to strike out on its own; and the premature forcing of the United States to a decision point -- in effect, the unmasking of American diplomacy. Moreover, like the simultaneous crises in Hungary and at Suez in 1956, this episode may dilute the attention focused on Eastern Europe and provide the Soviets with cover for whatever mischief they may embark on in Poland. To all this, Begin appears sublimely indifferent.

This catalytic even has also underscored the substantial void in American foreign policy. This may turn out to be beneficial, since the situation is presumably curable. Nonetheless, aside from Latin America, the Reagan administration in five months has done remarkable little in establishing the specifics of goals and instruments, which are the substance of foreign policy. Elsewhere the specifics are unformed or, at best, tenous. Opposition to Soviet activism or international terrorism may be welcomed, but that represents a mood or an inclination rather than concrete policy (better revealed by expanding grain sales). Anti-communist rhetoric is no substitute for welldefined policy. Least of all, whatever its value as copy for the Washington fun-and-games department, does the recent phenomenon of let's-all-pummel-the-secretary-of-state-to-teach-generals-requisite-humility constitute foreign policy? The attack at Bagdad thus forces the administration, inclined to breeze along on an image of domestic good will and international toughness, to focus on the specifics of foreign policy, notably in the Mideast, and on nuclear proliferation.

To this point, the administration's approach in the Mideast has been to focus on the Soviet threat and to seek a "strategic consensus" presumably ending in cooperative action of the states of the region in improving the military deterrent to Soviet intervention. While such an outcome would be highly satisfying to many of us, it is the height of American ethnocentrism to assume that the states of the region will abandon their immediate concerns and embrace our own. For both Israel and its Arab neighbors, worry about the other's intentions and actions constitutes a clear and present danger, which they will scarcely forget simply to accommodate our concern regarding the longer-term through lower-probability threat to the region posed by the Soviet Union. Any hope that regional attention could be focused northward, in the absence of a simultaneous and effective grappling with the internal tensions of the region, must now be abandoned. The raid, in short, means the end for that particular drift in American policy preferences, for it has sharpened the apprehensions about the unresolved internal conflicts, while raising increased doubts about the effectiveness of the American role in the region.

With regard to these regional tensions, the United States might have preferred to temporize. It can do so no longer. The raid makes these tensions central -- and underscores U.S. inability to fulfill its expected role of ensuring Israeli restraint. The United States will now be forced to choose. On the one hand, we may tacitly condone the raid by maintaining arms shipments to Israel. The inevitable consequence will be a further breach between the United States and much of the Arab world. On the other hand, a cessation of arms shipments will automatically bring into question the depth of the American commitment to Israel's security. Forcing this choice on the United States was hardly in Israel's interests.

To condone the attack -- including Israel's use of American-supplied weapons in a manner dubious under American law -- requires in logic a far higher priority for anti-proliferation policies than the administration has exhibited to date. Sen. Alan Cranston and others may quite consistently, in view of their long-term stress on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, find the Israeli strike justifiable. So could the Carter administration, with its well-advertised, if ineffective, policies to prevent proliferation. But, to date, the Reagan administration has been indifferent or fatalistic about the spread of nuclear weapons, perhaps most dramatically so in terms of its evolving support and military assistance for Pakistan. Having immediately condemned the attack, the administration will find it doubly hard subsequently to condone it on the basis of non-proliferation objectives to which it so far has been rather indifferent. If the arms flow to Israel continues, in the face of the proprieties of American law, the distrust of American motives and of its intended role as honest broker in resolving Arab-Israeli differences will be significantly heightened.

Since Israel's own power is quite limited, its unilateral effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the region will prove, at best, transient. An issue on which the superpowers agree, though even they are limited in their ability to grapple with the problem, is certainly beyond Israel's very limited abilities. Israel's action may, by dramatizing the issue, strengthen Arab determination to acquire nuclear weapons. Perhaps more significant, it should be recalled that the initial move toward "the Islamic bomb" and the soliciting of support for that venture was by Pakistan's Ali Bhutto in the middle 1970s. And, despite Begin's provocative rhetoric, Pakistan lies beyond the reach of Israeli war planes and is, moreover, under American protection.

To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, Israel's own power is far too limited. The best that might be hoped for from Israel's badly-thought-through though brilliantly executed strike is that it could once again focus international attention on the problem of proliferation. Yet, it will do so in a badly deteriorated international climate.

Together the Mideast and Poland pose two prospective crises for the United States in the next few weeks, with the secretary of state abroad in China. It should provide a serious test of the administration's new crisis management machinery.