PARIS -- American foreign policy has been dealt a serious blow in the Middle East. There were specific regional causes for this, but the failure reveals a deterioration in the larger American international position that deserves examination.
In the confrontation with Iraq over arms inspections, Washington could not reconstruct the coalition of Arab states and European allies that opposed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. This failure invited a dramatic return to the diplomatic scene by Russia. It allowed the Iraqi president to manipulate Washington and the United Nations and -- so far -- escape from the adventure unscathed.
The end of the Cold War in 1989-90 was taken as opening the way to lasting and constructive cooperation among Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States to run the international system. That puts it baldly; it nonetheless then seemed reasonable to think that if the two economic power centers, Europe and the United States, with Japan's cooperation, worked closely with the new Russia -- still a nuclear power and still a diplomatic player of some consequence -- the international system would find greater stability with less risk than at any time since World War II.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, this idea seemed validated. The United States led the politico-military response. Europe backed the United States, the conservative Arab states joined the coalition against Iraq, and Russia cooperated while attempting a perfectly reasonable and desirable, if unsuccessful, mediation.
The war ended with the United States in the most influential Middle Eastern position it has ever enjoyed. Its commitment to Israel was balanced by the conservative Arabs' trust in Washington to support them in their struggle with extremists and with their problems of development. They believed that the United States would guarantee that the Israel-PLO peace negotiations ended happily for both sides.
Iran and Iraq remained outsiders by their own choice. But negotiations were begun to find a Syrian-Israeli settlement over the Golan Heights, reconcile Syria with the West and solve the Lebanon problem.
The Netanyahu factor
Today the United States has lost this extraordinarily influential position. Islamic terrorism and the consequent rise of extremist views in Israel are partly responsible, the latter leading to election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and termination of the peace process. But Washington itself, or the American political class, bears the responsibility for sacrificing America's interest in Mideast balance to Mr. Netanyahu's ambitions.
The American relationship with Russia has similarly been damaged by a combination of domestic politicking and official complaisance. Grigori Yavlinsky, the Russian economic reformer, said recently in Stockholm that the United States is provoking fear in Russia by treating the country as a potential enemy. (This was before last week's outcry in Washington political circles against Russia's intervention in the Iraq confrontation.)
Mr. Yavlinsky was talking about NATO expansion, "a tank approaching Russia's frontier," as he called it. He said, "We are assured that it is a peaceful tank. But it is still a tank." He added that in last year's presidential elections, the United States loudly supported Boris Yeltsin, urging the Russian people to vote for him. "So people voted for Yeltsin. Then the United States announced that NATO would expand. What was that supposed to say to us?"
The American official attitude toward Russia on this NATO question has combined superficial reassurances -- it's only a peace tank -- with a certain brutality: NATO will expand whether Russians like it or not; there is nothing they can do about it, and we would not like to see them try.
The same brutality marked the United States' handling of the European allies at the NATO summit in Madrid earlier this year. NATO would expand. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would be taken in, and no one else. That was that, and the United States was not interested in what anyone thought about it. Moreover, the Europeans would pay. (Or so Washington said.)
This administration arrogance, also displayed in cowboy boots at the Denver economic summit earlier this year, together with Congress' new enthusiasm for attempting to legislate for the world on international trade and the treatment of Cuba and Iran, has provoked a considerable backlash in Europe.
Asian banking crisis
The backlash exists in Asia as well, where it now has been intensified by the Asian banking crisis and market collapse. These are conveniently blamed on Wall Street and on Washington's reckless promotion of global deregulation. The American tendency is to brush all this off as the whining of losers, the result of lost amour-propre in Russia, greed and jealousy in France and assorted resentments elsewhere.
The usual State Department comment is that when the United States leads, the world complains about arrogance, and when it doesn't lead the United States is accused of isolationism.
The answer is plausible if U.S. policy is succeeding. That is not what is happening. The "indispensable nation" is no longer the central actor in a cooperative system to keep the peace. In place of cooperation there is tension, directed against the United States.
William Pfaff, a syndicated columnist, will address the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, Dec. 9.
Pub Date: 12/01/97