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U.S.-Arab Relations Plummet : Worst Since ’73 Oil Embargo; Rejection of Arms Deal Cited

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Times Staff Writer

With grass-roots animosity growing steadily on both sides, the always troubled relationship between the United States and much of the Arab world has fallen to the lowest point since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo--with potentially serious consequences for the United States.

“There has been a constant erosion of the dialogue and relationship,” a senior Administration official said recently. “I have seen it especially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”

Deteriorating relations have already set back the Mideast peace process and, according to experts, now threaten to create political and diplomatic problems--and ultimately, perhaps, economic problems as well.

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Building for a Year

The Administration official, who asked not to be identified by name, said the strains have been building for more than a year and reached a new height with the overwhelming votes in the House and Senate earlier this month against a relatively modest $354-million arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Arab nations have perceived the votes as confirmation of their long-held suspicions that Americans favor Israeli over Arab interests, Mideast experts outside the government agree. The congressional action and the problems that preceded it have fueled an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, these specialists say, and have embarrassed pro-American Arab leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.

Could Mitigate Damage

Congress could mitigate the damage by upholding President Reagan’s expected veto of the legislation blocking the sale. But much of the harm has already been done, and Mideast experts believe that it will be difficult to repair.

“Whether or not the veto is overridden, the vote is symptomatic of attitudes in the Congress and the public at large about the Arabs,” said Richard B. Parker, a retired diplomat who served as ambassador to three Arab nations during the 1970s. “. . . We are guilty of a deep-seated prejudice against Arabs. We think of them as rag-heads that you can insult with impunity.”

Arab leaders could interpret the vote as a warning that their own activities--particularly their expressions of support for Libya’s Col. Moammar Kadafi in the wake of the April 15 U.S. raid on Libyan targets--have contributed to the deteriorating relations.

But Parker, now on the staff of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said it is much more likely that they will attribute the result to anti-Arab feeling in the United States.

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“The congressional vote should make the Saudis sit up and take notice, but I’m not sure that the full significance has sunk in yet,” he said. “When things happen, they analyze them from their own perspective and usually come up with the wrong answers.”

Congressional opponents of the Saudi arms package, led by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), maintain that Washington has very little to show for its efforts to court moderate Arab leaders and say it is time to stop catering to Arab opinion. Other critics are even blunter, maintaining that U.S.-Arab relations no longer matter very much because the world is awash in oil.

William Quandt, a former Mideast specialist on the National Security Council staff and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the vote on the arms package “reflects a mood in the country--reflected in the Congress--that we don’t have to worry very much about the Arabs now because the price of oil is going down.”

But he called that view shortsighted. “It is useful to have some footholds in the Middle East,” he said. “You never know which way the wind will blow. It is reckless to throw away a relationship that, on balance, you want to preserve.”

Dependent Once More

For one thing, Quandt and other specialists agree, the oil glut is likely to vanish by the early 1990s. And when that happens, they say, the United States and its allies in Western Europe and Japan will find themselves as dependent on Mideastern petroleum as they were a few years ago.

“It’s on the calendar--fully predictable--that the gulf states will be very high on our priorities once again within five years,” the senior Administration official said.

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Also, despite slumping oil revenues, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf oil producers have invested billions of dollars in the United States, and they could produce havoc in U.S. financial markets by withdrawing that money.

The U.S.-Arab chill, if it goes far enough, could provide an opening to the Soviet Union to increase its influence in the region. At present, Moscow has important relations only with Syria, Libya and South Yemen.

“I’m not going to wave the Soviet bloody shirt, but they (the Soviets) are the obvious alternative to any of these people,” Parker said.

Arms Deal Collapses

From the Arab point of view, the deterioration in relations with the United States began early last year, when the Reagan Administration was forced by overwhelming congressional opposition to withdraw its offer to sell $3 billion worth of F-15 warplanes and other weapons to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis bought British-made Tornado jets instead.

Later, the Administration postponed--permanently, as it has turned out--its plans to sell anti-aircraft missiles and other arms to Jordan. The recent defeat of the Saudi arms package accelerated the downward spiral.

From the American standpoint, the relationship soured when Arab terrorists attacked U.S. targets in Europe. Although the Administration sought to blame Kadafi, the distinction between his regime and other Arab states was often lost on Congress and the public. When Reagan ordered the retaliatory bombing of Libya last month, anti-Arab attitudes in this country intensified.

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Shocked by Casualties

Although most moderate Arab leaders are embarrassed by Kadafi’s activities, they were shocked by the civilian casualties that the U.S. warplanes inflicted on the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.

Americans, on the other hand, resented the criticism of the raid from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states that have received various forms of U.S. support over the years.

Further, the U.S.-mediated Arab-Israeli peace process has ground to a halt. On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers blame Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states for refusing to support negotiations with Israel.

In the Arab world, on the other hand, the tendency is to blame Washington for the lack of progress. The senior Administration official said most moderate Arab leaders valued the peace process because it addressed, albeit slowly, the Palestinian problem.

‘In Suspended Animation’

The U.S. role as Israeli-Arab go-between cushioned some earlier bumps in the U.S.-Arab relationship, he said. “This (peace process) is now in suspended animation,” he said. “That cushion is smaller today.”

Today’s disillusionment stems in part from unrealistic expectations on both sides. The administrations of Reagan and President Jimmy Carter fed these inflated expectations by promising Congress that earlier arms sales packages for Saudi Arabia and Jordan would make those nations more flexible in their relations with Israel.

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“The Administration is now reaping the harvest of the way it argued the issues of arms sales to the Arab world in past years,” said Samuel W. Lewis, a retired diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985.

Reduction in Credibility

“The Administration has overstated and exaggerated the role they were anticipating the Saudis or the Jordanians would play in peacemaking,” said Lewis, who is now a scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “By telling the Congress the Saudis would do things they never should have been expected to do, the Administration has antagonized the Congress and reduced the Saudi credibility and its own credibility.”

Parker, former ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco, said Americans “tend to personalize foreign regimes. We like to put governments in little pigeonholes and label them as pro-West or anti-West. We expect the Saudis to take positions that are contrary to their national interest because we perceive them as pro-West, and when they don’t do it, we get angry.”

Spreading the Blame

Yet Arab leaders must share the blame for the current chill, Lewis added.

“The Arab world is as divided and as confused as it has been in a long time,” he said. “It is having to face up to its weakness and its inability to have an impact on anybody’s policy. Relations may be as bad as they have been since the (1973 Arab-Israeli War, which touched off the oil embargo), but they are not as bad as they have been at some earlier times. This is all quite cyclical.”

But Quandt said he could find no evidence that relations will improve soon.

“There is very little that we can point to where things are going well in the Middle East,” he said. “Our friends in the Arab world are on the defensive. They don’t have much to show for their relations with us.”

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