The State Department’s top Mideast strategist Wednesday rebuffed congressional suggestions that the Reagan Administration scale back plans to sell advanced weapons to Jordan to avoid a “bloody legislative battle” that could place new strains on U.S. relations with King Hussein’s government and the rest of the Arab world.
Although he said that President Reagan has not made a final decision, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy told a House subcommittee that he expects “an early notice” to Congress of the Administration’s intention to supply Jordan with the weapons. Jordan ordered the jet warplanes and late-model anti-aircraft missiles four years ago.
But Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Mideast, bluntly told Murphy: “You have a problem in the Congress.” He suggested that the Administration drop the request for the planes and missiles, which Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill strongly oppose.
But Murphy responded: “We think Jordan has a genuine need for advanced aircraft and anti-aircraft defenses.”
Reports of a major Administration arms sale to Jordan and Saudi Arabia have circulated for weeks, although these accounts from Administration and congressional sources have frequently changed in details. Murphy’s testimony contained the most authoritative statement on the situation to be made public so far.
Saudi Arabia is no longer interested in buying major new U.S. weapons “at this time,” Murphy said, after its decision last weekend to buy British-made Tornado fighter-bombers instead of U.S.-manufactured F-15 fighters.
However, he said, the Administration still hopes to sell spare parts and some other support systems for American arms that the Saudis previously purchased.
Saudi King Fahd turned to the British plane to avoid a bruising congressional battle, Murphy said. Nevertheless, Riyadh’s decision to buy 48 Tornados reduces U.S. influence with the Saudi military and “represents, obviously, a loss of trade” at a time when the deteriorating U.S. balance-of-payments situation is becoming a major political issue.
Demand on Hussein
Congress, which must be informed by the Administration of its plans to sell weapons abroad, could block any sale to Jordan. Earlier this year, it voted to deny any new arms sale to the Amman government until Hussein publicly announced his intention to recognize Israel and to engage in prompt peace talks with the Israelis.
In signing that legislation, Reagan said Hussein had met the requirements by declaring he was prepared for negotiations with Israel under the “umbrella” of an international conference and that Hussein would recognize Israel once those talks begin. Several members of the staunchly pro-Israel subcommittee challenged the President’s interpretation, however.
Murphy told the panel Wednesday: “The chilling fact is that King Hussein’s courageous move toward Israel has provoked overt threats against his regime and associates. The United States must be prepared to support those who are willing to take risks for peace.”
Hussein is expected to discuss the arms sale and congressional opposition to it with Reagan at the White House on Sept. 30. At that time, the Jordanian monarch could decide if he wants to see through the controversy on Capitol Hill or to turn, as the Saudis did, to other suppliers.
In the House on Wednesday, California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) predicted that the Administration would “derail the peace process” if it insisted on ignoring congressional opposition to the Jordan arms package.
“I think we will see a long and bloody legislative fight where nobody will benefit,” he said. Levine and several other subcommittee members also questioned Hussein’s willingness to negotiate with the Israelis.