A Mideast policy to keep the oil flowing

In the confusing world of high policy, there are not too many propositions on which you can find general agreement. Here, for better or worse, is one of those few: access to Middle East oil is a crucial American interest.

Taken by itself, this addiction should not keep us awake nights. The producers need to sell the oil, and we and our allies are their favorite customers. We can pay in the goods and technologies the producers prefer, and they find business with Western democracy more congenial than with Communist autocracy or third-world turbulence.

Why then is Middle East oil supply so precarious? Why the constant threat of shut-off, as in 1973 and who knows when in the 1980s? This particular foreign policy monster has two heads: the area is prone to local wars in which oil production and shipping are chronic casualties, and it is a major battle zone in the power struggle between the two great protagonists of this century --the United States and the Soviet Union.

The advent of nuclear weapons has placed unprecedented constraints on military competition. Possessing an awesome capacity for reciprocal destruction , the US and the USSR are inhibited by an overwhelming mutual interest in avoiding nuclear war and any action that might escalate into nuclear war. Some armchair analysts maintain that it is theoretically possible for the superpowers to fight a conventional war without being drawn into a nuclear exchange. Responsible policymakers in Washington and Moscow prefer to cleave to policies that avoid putting this scary hypothesis to the test.

Clearly, one such policy should be to shun any precipitate change in the Soviet-American military balance anywhere in the world. There has been considerable enthusiasm in some quarters for expanding the American military presence in the Middle East. Even the Carter administration was beginning to succumb on this issue. Despite Carter's tendency to give in to the pressures of the moment -- as when he admitted the Shah into the US, and when he repudiated the US vote in the Security Council on the Israeli-occupied territories -- his long-term foreign policies were generally sound. A significant exception, however, was the latter-day espousal of the concept of a rapid deployment force for instantaneous insertion into trouble spots. What spot so troubled as the Middle East?

There are basic flaws in this concept. Set aside the aversion of America's Arab "allies" to any ostentatious US military presence; set aside the fact that no one has convincingly demonstrated that US military action could avert an oil shut-off; there still remains the sobering reality that dropping American troops into the Middle East could upset the global military balance in Russia's own backyard, goad Moscow into a response, and so raise the specter of Soviet-American military confrontation -- in a region where the Soviets have the geographic advantage.

Throughout the 1980s this dilemma will be intensified by the gradually increasing dependence on Middle East oil of the US, of many of its European allies, and of the USSR as well.It is incumbent on the Reagan administration to look for nonmilitary ways to alleviate it. Fortunately, international power struggles can sometimes be diverted into other arenas -- cultural, economic, and political:

* In the cultural arena, there is no contest. In the long run, representative government will always prevail over autocracy. The problem is to stave off defeat in the other arenas of conflict.

* In the economic arena, there is good news and bad news. On the debit side, the US has occasionally gone for the quick buck. Selling Iran sophisticated arms and show projects it didn't need was like selling firewater to the Indians: it produced short-term profits and long-term catastrophe. On the credit side, American commerce and industry are forging with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states patterns of trade that are already durable and may someday be irreversible.

* It is the political contest that will call on the Reagan administration for the highest measure of subtlety and common sense. The US cannot conquer the Middle East. It hopes to prevent the USSR from doing so. Its goal should be to promote a regional political structure receptive to economic and cultural bonds with the US and resistant to hostile infiltration and subversion. Today, the Middle East is a power vacuum. Not only is there no regional political structure; there is no existing state or combination of states that can be confidently identified as the embryo for such a structure.

Fostering and coopting those agencies or movements most likely to be the precursors of an independent, viable, cohesive Middle East should be America's preeminent strategic obj ective in the Middle East in the comming decade.

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