AWACS blips

Washington has only itself to blame, of course, for the fuss and furor sorrounding the proposed sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. If the Pentagon years ago had not pushed a glittering "wish list" of military hardware on the Saudis -- and if the Reagan administration had handled the whole affair deftly -- it would not find itself in its present predicament. At this point the American public and the Congress must be throughly confused as to whether the AWACS aircraft are or are not the latest world in sophisticated equipment, whether they are or are not crucial to protecting the Gulf oil fields, whether they would or would not endanger Israel.

Inasmuch as scrapping the whole idea would seem to be politically and diplomatically intolerable, the administration must try to work out a compromise solution with Saudi Arabia.The Saudis, for obvious reasons of national pride, are reluctant to accept joint command of the radar surveillance system. But perhaps some formula can still be negotiated which will satisfy congressional concerns and also be acceptable in Riyadh.

Taking the dignified high road, Saudi Arabia has already said that failure to get the AWACS would not affect its oil-pricing policies. It does not want to be seen as a black-mailer. But it is clear that a defeat on the AWACS would sour US-Saudi relations for an indefinite time -- something neither side would welcome. It would damage Saudi prestige in the Arab world, set back the administration's efforts to forge a strategic security system in the Gulf region , undermine the hopeful Saudi initiative in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and raise doubts about America's ability and willingness to pursue an evenhanded policy in the Middle East. As for Israel, even critics of the AWACS sale believe it could live with the system.

Is there a lesson in all this?There indeed is and it is the old lesson of pouring weapons into a volatile region without thinking through the implications. In this instance it is not improbable that, with AWACS in Saudi hands, Iraq and Syria would want more arms to balance things off. Then Egypt might look for more weaponry.Israel, in turn, will expect US compensatory aid on grounds it has to spend money jamming the AWACS and diverting forces to watch Saudi Arabia. And so on and on -- every new item fueling the arms spiral and adding to the risk of regional conflict.

While the best must be made now of a bad situation -- and that means seeking some compromise with Saudi Arabia -- it is to be hoped the whole exercise proves instructive to Washington policymakers. The diplomats should not let the generals call the tune.

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