Gulf course

THE American response to the increasing number of bombings of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf should be considered and deliberate. Helping to structure the nation's reaction are the diplomatic and military aspects of the difficult US experiences in Lebanon and Central America - and, earlier, in Vietnam.

Thus far the US response to the Gulf war has been careful: Both rhetoric and action have been restrained. An American naval presence exists in the area in case its active participation should be deemed necessary.

As the United States decides what its approach should be now, it needs to answer several questions. For one, are Iran and Iraq - each of which is believed responsible for some tanker attacks - simply trying to draw the US or other nations into the conflict? If so, leaping to the bait could enmesh the US unwittingly in an activist role which would be most difficult to pull out of.

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And how important is it to keep the current flow of oil coming through the Gulf? Some 20 percent of the West's oil now moves that way: Most of it goes to Japan and Western Europe. But the US has some 400 million barrels of strategic reserve already stockpiled domestically; this could be used to soften considerably the effects of any decrease in the flow. Also, in a few months much of Iraq's oil is to be exported via pipelines that are scheduled for completion at the end of this year; now, that oil is shipped through the Gulf by tanker.

If the administration ultimately concludes that some measure of force should be used to protect the Gulf shipping, are Congress and the American people willing to pursue such a policy? It would be damaging both domestically and internationally for the US to embark on any plan that it did not have the perseverance to complete.

Should the administration conclude that it may be necessary for the US to protect the flow of oil through the Gulf - or to defend the principle that international shipping should move freely on international waterways - then care must be taken so that any US response be part of a genuinely multilateral effort. There should be no unilateral action.

Further, any such action should be defensive only, in line with recent reports that the US in the past has offered to provide air cover for tankers from Arab nations in the Gulf. Great care would have to be taken not to become involved in the actual war between Iran and Iraq, especially given the extremely unpredictable nature, not only of the contest, but of the contestants. Figuring out a way to keep the sea lanes open but steer clear of the broader war defines the task.

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