Risks for Old Glory

THE Reagan administration should not have gotten into the business of flagging Kuwaiti tankers. It put itself into that box. It had an option earlier of checking with the Soviet Union to see whether an international approach would work, one that might have kept the Soviets from opportunism in the Persian Gulf; the administration did not act on it. The White House announced it would flag the tankers, and, by golly, it is going to do it, sometime the middle of the month. We hear disconcerting echoes of the nationalistic bravado that was played out in the US Marine tragedy in Beirut, and in the punching out of the hapless Qaddafi in Tripoli. These adventures hardly enhanced the image of American staying power in the Middle East. Self-confidence does not have to prove itself.

To argue that since Kuwait had also asked the Soviets to protect it, and so the United States had to prevent the Soviets from doing so alone, would be to give over US decision powers to the Kuwaitis. Had the US no way to get the Kuwaitis to take back their Soviet bid?

On the US domestic side, the administration has room to try its flagging venture. The public is fairly evenly divided over the issue of escorting Kuwaiti tankers. It is hard to argue, especially during Fourth of July week, against Old Glory. But that is if everything goes all right. The public by 2 to 1 opposes striking mainland targets of any attacker, preferring to knock out an attacking plane, ship, or missile. In other words, the public doesn't mind the flagging, but it doesn't want to slip into a Persian Gulf war. The USS Stark's helplessness in Gulf waters did not build confidence in the Navy's ability to ward off attackers.

This is the way Congress feels, too: divided over the flagging of Kuwaiti tankers, apprehensive of what could follow.

The Democrats are not playing their hand well, either. If the Senate persists in setting up a veto game with the White House over the flagging, the President will win. His opponents concede they cannot muster the two-thirds override vote. The President is in need of some wins, quite apart from what is going on in the Gulf, to show he can still be a force in Washington. Of course he can be a force. The Democrats could have simply said the President had given them a fait accompli with the flagging. Instead, by daring him on, they are giving him a political motive to go ahead.

We do want the White House to succeed with its two United Nations Security Council resolutions that seek an end to the Iran-Iraq war. The measure more likely to be approved calls for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of the warring parties to their borders, and a prisoner exchange. The second would impose mandatory sanctions against any party refusing to comply with the cease-fire and withdrawal. China, one of five permanent Security Council members, with veto power, is an Iran weapons supplier and is the most likely to object to sanctions.

Registering Kuwaiti ships under the American flag might be viewed as a tilt toward the Iraqis, as a provocation, or as a measure of US commitment to peace in the region. We hope the last proves true.

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