What Is the U.S. Doing in the Gulf? Our Policy-Makers Would Like to Know

Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

The question was simple: "Can't anyone around here tell me, in one declaratory sentence, what we are doing in the gulf?" asked a senior State Department official last week. Unfortunately for the Administration, the answer isn't easy.

The first problem is Kuwait. The U.S. Navy will soon begin protecting half of this Persian Gulf state's fleet of 22 oil tankers. There is ample precedent, at least as long ago as World War II, for the United States to convoy friendly ships through hostile waters. But, as even Kuwait's biggest boosters admit, this sheikdom is not exactly Great Britain.

It isn't even as closely tied to the United States as Oman, the Persian Gulf state geographically and ideologically at the other extreme. Where Oman grants the U.S. base rights, Kuwait inveighs against cooperating with the United States. Moreover, Kuwait was the first--and for more than two decades the only--Arab Gulf sheikdom to have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. With a large Palestinian population and a boisterous press, the Kuwaitis have also been among the most vocal Arab critics of U.S. support for Israel. There was no U.S. ambassador in Kuwait for nearly a year after the government rejected a career diplomat, Brandon H. Grove Jr., because he had been tainted by service in Israel.

Even now, when asking U.S. assistance, Kuwaiti sensibilities seem only to make matters worse. They bristle that we will be "protecting" their ships. "You have to understand," says one State Department Arabist, "the Kuwaitis are very sensitive about that word. It reminds them of the bad old days when they were a British protectorate." Instead the Kuwaitis maintain the fiction that, because the tankers will fly the Stars and Stripes, they will be American. "Your flags, your ships," one well-connected Kuwaiti said last week.

In more practical terms, this means Kuwait is at best a reluctant partner. At this point, Kuwaitis strongly resist U.S. suggestions that they provide logistical support for Navy ships. "We can't be helpful," a Kuwait diplomat said. "It's not our responsibility. If you can't do it, get someone else who can."

Any veiled threat that they might turn to the Soviet Union for protection, as the Kuwaitis well know, produces great resonance within the Reagan Administration. The specter of an increased Soviet role in the gulf, more than anything else, has prompted the U.S. offer. It has also served to further complicate the picture.

Late last fall, when the Kuwaitis first approached Washington for assistance, they were met with nearly complete indifference. Only after the Administration learned that Kuwait received a much warmer response from Moscow--which agreed to lease three of its tankers--did U.S. interest dramatically increase.

Led by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the Administration reconsidered Kuwait's request. In a personal call to the President last month and in subsequent high-level meetings, Weinberger lobbied for the Administration to assume the role of protecting Kuwaiti shipping. As some of the defense secretary's critics in the State Department point out, he was acting on his two major prejudices: Thwarting the Soviets and helping the Arabs. Before the Iraqi attack on the U.S. frigate Stark, Weinberger associates were crowing over his success. Said one, "We trumped the Soviets. They got only three ships to our 11."

But the Stark incident forced Administration officials to acknowledge that their Kuwaiti undertaking was not risk-free. And it will remain hazardous as long as the Iran-Iraq War rages. This realization has led State Department officials to recognize that, as the United States works side by side with the Soviet Union to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers, we'd better start actively cooperating on ways to pursue an end to the Gulf War. This has long been a primary goal not only of Kuwait, but other gulf states and Iraq, which believe only a combined effort by the superpowers will force Iran to the negotiating table.

Iran, however, shows no signs of being cowed by increased superpower involvement. Quite the contrary. In early May, Iranians attacked a Soviet freighter, causing substantial damage. And after the Stark incident, Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati declared, "Iran will not allow the superpowers or any foreign forces to interfere in the region."

This is a threat Administration planners take seriously. They note that even under the shah, Tehran sought to exercise hegemony over what is, after all, called the Persian Gulf.

Unlike the shah's regime, revolutionary Iran is ready to employ unorthodox means to achieve its goals. Last month's attack on the Soviet freighter was undertaken by radical Revolutionary Guards launching rocket-propelled grenades from a speeding boat. And there are reports now that the Revolutionary Guards have acquired a fleet of cabin cruisers capable of speeds of more than 45 knots.

The Iranians can also deploy more conventional weapons, the most worrisome being Chinese-made silkworm anti-ship missiles, which are being installed near the vital Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the gulf. Iran also maintains an aging fleet of U.S.-supplied warplanes. And as one State Department official said, "Suppose the Iranians send 25 planes against us. We knock down 24, but one gets through. They win, we lose."

In the event of an Iranian attack it is not clear what--if any--kind of retaliation the President will order. But the prospect of a strike against the Iranian mainland must be tempting to a President, not to mention secretaries of defense and state, after repeated humiliations by the Khomeini regime. One former Administration official with long experience in the region and frequent close personal contact with these Cabinet secretaries predicts a major U.S. strike. "When it comes to decide on retaliation, Shultz will be flying wing for Cap," he said.

This final complication, the Administration's obsession with Iran, perhaps more than any other factor makes U.S. allies wary and U.S. policy inexplicable. As revealed by U.S. experiences in Lebanon--where Iran-backed terrorists carried out the attack on the Marine barracks--and the arms-for-hostages deal, Iranians are clever and resourceful players. Dealing with them in their own backyard takes patience and long-term planning, neither of which appear in current Administration actions.

Instead, the Reagan team, almost as a reflexive action, invokes the old verities without thought to application: Soviet menace, protecting a small nation, foiling an aggressor. No wonder they have a hard time explaining.

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