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A Soviet Shell Game in Middle East : U.S. Needs a Firm Policy Amid Constant Kremlin Shifting

February 23, 1988|STEVEN L. SPIEGEL | Steven L. Spiegel, a UCLA professor of political science specializing in American foreign policy and the Middle East, was in Moscow last month for meetings with prominent Soviet analysts

Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost is creating a kaleidoscope of contradictions that we are just beginning to encounter, let alone comprehend. We now face an international scene made more complex by new Soviet attitudes and the reduction of American-Soviet ideological confrontation. Our thinking must adjust to the Kremlin's new voice by developing innovative policies and probing to see how far the Soviets are prepared to go to achieve an improved relationship.

The new complexities are evident in three issues involving the Middle East--Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The Soviets have lost in Afghanistan, and they know it. Increased U.S. covert assistance to the Afghan resistance has created a major victory for the United States at little cost to us. The Reagan Administration must decide how long to maintain this support while the Soviets are withdrawing. Subsequently, our next President will have to deal immediately with Afghanistan's future. The Soviets fear a pro-American government ready to entertain American military bases on its soil. We must assure them that we seek a return to a neutral Afghanistan.

To an astonishing degree the Soviets seem to share our concern about Islamic fundamentalism, and they claim to be mystified that we have ignored the strongly fundamentalist inclinations of many of our Afghan friends. The Soviets seem genuinely to fear a bloodbath when they withdraw, and, contradicting their fear of our future involvement, they seek U.S. assistance in the formation of a new coalition government and in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan. These contradictions seem to be typical of the new Soviet thinking. A key dilemma confronting us now is how to sort them out and work with Soviet officials to flesh out new possibilities. But we must be unyielding in insisting on complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan--in part so that we may focus on the growing danger of a nuclear Pakistani-Indian confrontation, which the Afghan war has prevented either superpower from addressing fully.

The Soviets' role in the Persian Gulf also is confused. Their antipathy for Islamic fundamentalism in part reflects their disillusioning dalliance with Tehran. They are likely to cooperate grudgingly in a U.N. Security Council resolution that in effect would impose an arms embargo against Iran.

The Soviets' proposal for a U.N. naval force in the gulf is typical of the new challenge that their thinking represents: partly self-serving (it reduces our presence), partly self-aggrandizing (it gets them involved), partly self-defeating (how could the United States and the Soviet Union both operate in an international naval force?) and partly visionary (typical of Gorbachev's calls for a Soviet-American partnership at the United Nations). We must also decide how far to go in maintaining our force in the gulf and in cooperating with the Soviet Union in attempts to end the war.

Confusion can also be seen in policy toward Israel and the West Bank. The Soviets have been flirting with Jordan, Egypt and Israel, and distancing themselves somewhat from Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Like everyone else, they have been caught off guard by the rioting in the occupied territories and have retreated to a familiar hard line while continuing to give Israel the impression of a new openness.

The centerpiece of Soviet policy is a call for an international peace conference. Yet policy analysts in Moscow, while remarkably open in discussions with visiting Westerners, can't (or won't) answer pointed questions about Palestinian representation in such a conference, the role of Syria, the nature of Soviet participation, Soviet willingness to differ with established Arab positions, and whether they will demand a veto over agreements or permit American mediation while they remain on the sidelines. Before we even consider accepting Soviet participation, we must carefully circumscribe the nature of their involvement in any peace conference.

Israelis who support the idea of an international conference demand an increase in Soviet Jewish emigration before they will even consider attending. The evidence from the Soviet Union is confusing: A frightened, frustrated group of long-term refuseniks reports new obstacles for some; a sudden dramatic decrease in permission since the first of the year; a growing refusal to allow new applications. How can we trust the Soviets' assurances on a peace conference if they cannot even make initial commitments on Jewish emigration?

There is a breathless excitement about discussions in Moscow. How can the United States best take advantage of the new thinking? By coaxing Soviet officials into clarifying concepts that are tantalizing but short on specifics, by testing Soviet proposals and by offering ideas of our own designed to move the relationship forward. In the early 1970s we were content to define detente vaguely. We should learn from that experience that only by clarifying proposals specifically will we prevent another round of mutual disillusionment and recriminations.

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