That Pesky Persian Gulf : GUARDIANS OF THE GULF: The Growth of American Involvement in the Persian Gulf, 1833-1991 By Michael A. Palmer (The Free Press: $24.95; 320 pp.)

Sick, adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University, was the chief White House aide for Persian Gulf affairs on the National Security Council staff, 1976-81.

Presidential elections in the United States usually turn on pocketbook issues, and the 1992 contest is likely to be no exception. There is, however, a foreign-policy subplot to the current campaign year that may intrude on the traditional debates over jobs and taxes. Like an embarrassingly rowdy guest, the seamy underside of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf just will not go away.

In the past several weeks, there have been five rude reminders of episodes that many in Washington would prefer to forget. A congressional committee called for a special prosecutor to examine possible criminal conduct by the Bush Administration in providing aid to Iraq's Saddam Hussein prior to his invasion of Kuwait and then trying to cover it up. Several days later, jury selection began in the trial of Clair E. George, the former deputy director of operations in the CIA, who is accused of having lied to Congress and a federal grand jury about his knowledge of arms deliveries to Iran in the mid-1980s.

The trial of George is beginning only weeks after the indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger on felony charges that he concealed his knowledge of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh recently confirmed that his lengthy investigation was now centered on whether Reagan Administration officials "at the highest level of government" had engaged in wrongdoing.

On July 3, Senator Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to investigate the circumstances surrounding the downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the U.S. Navy's Vincennes in July 1988. His letter cited a report by ABC News that the ship was in Iranian territorial waters at the time and may have deliberately provoked the firefight that led to the tragic accident. If these charges are true, the Administration deceived both Congress and the public and has some explaining to do about why the ship's captain was awarded the Legion of Merit for this operation one year later.

On July 1, an interim report was issued by the House of Representatives task force investigating the so-called October Surprise--allegations that the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 made secret contacts with Iranians concerning the release of American hostages in Iran. That report concluded that George Bush was not in Paris in October, 1980, as some had alleged, but both Republicans and Democrats on the committee agreed to proceed with an investigation of the "central" issues on an accelerated basis.

None of these issues has been resolved, and the Administration staunchly denies any wrongdoing. Yet the very existence of this unprecedented array of investigations during the heat of a presidential campaign suggests that the Persian Gulf will remain a subject of attention between now and November.

That is a special reason to welcome Michael Palmer's new book on the evolution of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf. It does not resolve any of the contested policy issues, addressing them only obliquely if at all. But it provides a wonderfully timely and thoughtful analysis of the historical record and sets the context for the current policy debate.

Palmer describes how the United States, for more than a century, sought and eventually gained commercial supremacy in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, a long series of American Administrations attempted to avoid direct involvement in the affairs of this distant and complex region, preferring to rely on the traditional British military and diplomatic presence to maintain stability. Palmer argues persuasively that this division of labor was anomalous and ultimately fated to change. The United States could not hope to exercise economic predominance in the gulf without shouldering the political and military responsibilities that go with it.

America's reluctance to become directly involved in gulf affairs first began to crack in 1953, when the CIA and British intelligence organized a countercoup that restored the shah to the throne of Iran. Another major crack appeared in 1980 with the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. With the American hostages in Iran and the Soviet Union moving military forces into Afghanistan, President Carter announced that any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf "will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests" of the United States, to be repelled by any means necessary, "including military force." The problem was, as many political and military analysts pointed out at the time, that U.S. military force available for use in the Persian Gulf region, though growing, was still quite limited. The Carter Doctrine was a declaration of intent, not capabilities.

The final watershed, according to Palmer, came in the spring of 1987 when the Reagan Administration agreed to reflag and defend a fleet of Kuwaiti tankers shuttling back and forth through the gulf under the guns of Iranian maritime raiders, thereby inserting itself into the middle of a messy regional war. That commitment to defend Kuwaiti oil interests, in his view, led inexorably to Desert Storm and the assertion of U.S. military hegemony some four years later.

Palmer is a naval historian, and he is at his best when describing the development of U.S. military capabilities in the gulf. His exceptional access to naval records, for example, has opened a number of hitherto opaque windows concerning the relations between the Navy's tiny Middle East Force and the gulf rulers. He also reminds us that U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, especially for the military, is nothing new. On the contrary, it was recognized and incorporated into military plans long before the oil shocks of the past 20 years.

His footing is less secure when it comes to the politics of American engagement in the gulf, some of which have been idiosyncratic at best, bizarre at worst. Little attention or analysis is given to the back-door deals with Britain over Diego Garcia, the trade-offs and compromises as the United States danced around the dilemma of its contradictory policies toward Israel and the Arabs, the rise of virulent anti-Americanism in Iran, U.S. collaboration in the secret war against the Kurds in the early 1970s, the Soviet naval rivalry and arms-control proposals in the late 1970s, or the policy tergiversations at the UN as the Carter, Reagan and Bush Administrations shamefully attempted to shelter Iraq from the folly of its invasion of Iran.

There are some surprising gaps in documentation. The author would have benefited greatly from the work of his fellow historians Nikki R. Keddie and J. C. Hurewitz, to name only two obvious authorities missing from the bibliography.

What he has given us, however, is a compact and readable account of an extraordinary chapter in America's love-hate relationship with the Middle East. Although it is not the last word, it is an important first word. There has been, until now, no comprehensive study of America's deepening involvement in the Persian Gulf.

If Palmer is correct (and I believe he is), the United States is only beginning to come to terms with its new interests and responsibilities in the gulf. "Guardians of the Gulf" provides the necessary background, not only for this year's headlines but for the hard decisions of the years ahead.

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