London — The idea is simple: The United States and its NATO allies will form a powerful "quick-reaction force" able to wheel around NATO's borders -- and to shift into sudden high gear, if necessary, against Soviet threats to vital oil lines from the Gulf.
But the US now faces serious problems with the concept in Europe.
Only Britain and France so far have said they are in favor of discussing how they might contribute to such a force. Even then, both London and Paris know the opposition elsewhere in Europe. British officials are playing down Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's recent remarks in Washington. The French hardly discuss their plans in public at all.
The other bastion of NATO, West Germany, cannot contribute directly. Its Constitution limits West German armed forces to the NATO area only.
The underlying issue for Bonn is whether to contribute more money and arms inside NATO so that other alliance members can devote resources to the Rapid Deployment Force (as it is officially known).
So far, with the West German economy running into difficulties and Chancellor Helmut SchmidtHs own position not so strong as before, the answer seems to be "no."
Small NATO countries, such a Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and portugal, are seen as opposed to stationing any mobile NATO force outside of NATO borders.
The entire issue is likely to be raised at the summit meeting of European leaders in the Netherlands March 23 and 24. With typical understatement, one British source concedes: "There will have to be some chatting."
One concern in Europe is that it would have been wiser for President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher to have consulted Gulf states themselves before supporting the quick-reaction force idea in Washington in late February
European Community members also feel they themselves should have been consulted first.
British officials react strongly to such criticisms. They insist Mrs. Thatcher said nothing new in Washington. As long ago as Oct. 28 last year Francis Pym, then defense secretary, had said Britain welcomed the US decision to set up such a force and that Britain would "do whatever it can do to support the US."
Officials add that Mrs. Thatcher's "routine" endorsement of that position in Washington and New York was blown out of proportion by the British Press, which had been starved of major news during her visit.
In fact, she had not mentioned the idea in her final New York speech at all. In Washington the same morning she had simply indicated British support for a force for possible use, not only in the Gulf, but in Asian and other trouble spots as well.
The british press at once headlined opposition to the quick-reaction force idea in the Gulf, but Foreign Office officials now say the criticisms came from four antigovernment newspapers.
Gulf government themselves had not made any criticisms; three of them had asked for copies of what Mrs. Thatcher had actually said in the US.
Iraq had been critical in public -- but in private with British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington, Iraq's foreign minister had not raised the issue at all.
That said, however, the future of the Rapid Deployment Force looks clouded.
European leaders are expected to be critical at the Netherlands summit. This is a time of extreme economic difficulty in Europe: European Community President Gaston Thorn has just told the European Parliament that the outlook is the gloomiest it has been for years, with high inflation recession, unemployment, and rising oil prices.
NATO governments see the Regan administration as still settling in. They recognize it will pressure them to do more in and out of NATO. But for now, needing to sustain large social welfare costs, Europe is in vise: reluctant to spend more money on arms, but reluctant to spend more money on arms, but recognizing its own need for Gulf oil.