Tanks for the Saudis - a vital US deal

By , Wilbur Crane Eveland has been associated with the Middle East for more than 30 years, serving on the policy planning staffs of the White House and Pentagon and as an adviser to the CIA. He is the author of ''Ropes of Sand: America's Failure in the Middle East.''

The Reagan administration has announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia 1,200 M-1 Abrams tanks at $2 million each. If the White House permits an election-season battle with Congress to veto a vital foreign policy decision, the lessons of the 1981 sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia will have been wasted.

The 1981 AWACS sale, with an air defense enhancement package, was President Reagan's first test of the ability of a Republican-controlled Senate to prevent a veto by Congress of a foreign policy decision. Its management could hardly have been more inept. Rivalry between the President's assistant for national security affairs, Richard V. Allen, and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was largely to blame.

In a desperation attempt to prevent a congressional veto, the administration mobilized private industry for lobbying support. The firms selected had business interests in the Middle East; America would lose foreign earnings if relations with Saudi Arabia suffered and the Arabs sent business elsewhere. Arrayed against these administration supporters were Jewish organizations, bolstered by a visit by Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

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The five AWACS aircraft sold to the Saudis now stand at Riyadh airport ready in case of attack on Middle East oilfields. None has threatened Israel in any manner.

By contrast, Israel's use of US-supplied EC-2 radar surveillance aircraft enabled its air force to violate the skies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia to bomb Baghdad in 1981, and these planes facilitated the raid weeks later on heavily populated Beirut. In 1982, the EC-2s permitted Israel to wipe out defensive anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon and Syria, and then to destroy much of Lebanon after dominating its airspace.

Which country, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria, used US equipment for aggression? The answer must be Israel.

In 1967, Israel first used French-supplied aircraft to destroy on the ground the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq; then employed US-supplied tanks and artillery to capture Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian territory. Has any Arab state used US-supplied equipment to attack Israel's forces, invade its original boundaries, or to bomb its population centers? The answer is that none has.

Major justifications for the sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia should be equally obvious. The purchase for cash - not long-term loans or forgiven credits - of 1, 200 M-1 tanks by the Saudis will reduce by $2.4 billion the US balance of payments deficit; roughly what the US gives Israel annually. To this must be added the $23 billion Saudi Arabia has paid for US military equipment, largely within the last 10 years. The Saudi sale will lower the cost to the US Army for research and development of the Abrams tank.

More important, because Saudi crews will be unable to operate and maintain these tanks in the near future - the first 18 Saudi crewmen have just started training at Fort Knox - tanks delivered to Saudi Arabia could be used by US forces to repel a Russian or Iranian attack on the Gulf oilfields.

Israel boasts of the fourth-best air force in the world. The Reagan administration is holding up delivery of 75 F-16 fighters to Israel until its troops withdraw from Lebanon, but approval of Israel's receipt of 200 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles has just been granted. For defense against whom?

Can the Jewish state that claims its ''security'' is threatened by some 8,000 Palestinian ground fighters afford to divert its armed forces to repel an invasion of the Middle East by Russia? If Israel's claims to a precarious existence are valid, the answer to this question must be no also.

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