"No other region is less forgiving of political passivity than the Middle East. So many interests are at stake and so many factors at work that the alternative to shaping events is to suffer through them. We are at such a juncture today."
A timely warning, as American envoy Philip Habib struggles to sort out the interests and factors bloodily at work in Lebanon, as the Iraq-Iran war heats up, as the Reagan administration finally seems ready to come to grips with the Palestinian problem on Camp David's terms. Right on the mark--except that these words were spoken by Al Haig in a definitive expression of administration Mideast policy on May 26.
Eleven days later, events made Haig's case; the Israelis were leveling Lebanon while the United States was "suffering through" events. A month or so later, Ronald Reagan was confessing to what you might (politely) call "political passivity": Nobody had "warned or notified (him) of the invasion. We wanted a diplomatic solution and believe there could have been one."
Surely there's got to be some lesson in this piteous lament, some clue to what's lacking in the Reagan administration's pursuit of American interests in the Middle East. It isn't policy so much. When the president says his first goal, after Lebanon, is to push the "autonomy" process for the West Bank and Gaza, he is beginning to get priorities straight. But when he says that's been "our goal for quite some time," he invites reminders of a full, first year of dithering.
When he wishes, wistfully, that diplomacy had been given more of a chance in Lebanon, he invites the conclusion that the Israelis don't take American wishes seriously. And when he suggests that the United States was incapable of restraining the Israelis, he invites the Arabs not to take the United States seriously.
Right there is the lesson: a way has to be found to convey to all concerned --Israel, the reasonably moderate Arabs, the reinvigorated European interventionists, the Soviets, even the Arab "rejectionists," not to mention the Palestinians--that, yes, this time around the United States is serious.
Words won't do it, and neither will bureaucratic hustle and bustle. Later will be time enough for the position papers reappraising the new alignments and antagonisms, the new positioning in an Arab world anxiously and incoherently reacting to new facts: a fractured PLO, a subdued Syria, a frightening Iran, a new Egypt.
The president could give weight to the words by involving himself personally, intimately, consistently, passionately--Jimmy Carter-style. But the obsession for detail that Carter showed at Camp David was his weakness as a president. In any case, it is not Ronald Reagan's style, for all the recent word from the ranch of his hourly involvement in Lebanon.
The established bureaucracy? The new secretary of state, George Shultz, will be breaking in for a spell. His "Bechtel connection" may be a bum rap, but it makes the Middle East the wrong place for him to make his first, big imprint. Besides his plate is full enough. An economist, he could make his most important contribution to the international economic crisis--as portentous and intractable, in its way, as the Middle East.
Something out of the ordinary is needed: A super-special, supreme commander of the U.S. effort in the Middle East, a manager of American mediation and, to a degree, imposition of a settlement, working full-time, for the duration, outside the conventional scheme of things, reporting to the president.
Candidates abound. Henry Kissinger is on a lot of unsolicited lists: a proven performer, but controversial. The veterans (Sol Linowitz) don't meet the test of political compatibility or the need for shock effect. Philip Habib is fully engaged and over-taxed in Lebanon.
Moving right along--and up--my candidate is Gerald Ford.
We don't use the prestige and unmatched experience of our ex-presidents. Nixon has credentials, but this is not a job for a man who needs a presidential pardon for his peace of mind. Carter has the track record, and could play a role; but he is too partisan for the taste of this White House. Ford meets the job description: integrity, political compatibility, high standing in Congress, unchallengable acceptability to the parties concerned. Kissinger, his old helpmate in past successful Mideast peacemaking, could help again.
There may be other possibilities. The point, underscored by Habib's problem in the Lebanese microcosm, is that a truly prodigious effort is going to be needed to extract this country's wider Middle East diplomacy from the slough of bureaucratic and congressional business as usual, the inter- agency infighting, the jurisdictional point-scoring by Congess, the inhibitions inherent in the approaching congressional election.
It can't be done completely, ever. But only to the extent that it is tried is the Reagan administration, with its record, likely to be taken seriously.