IF the Reagan administration wants to keep Congress from blocking its oft-submitted plan to sell arms to the Saudis, it will take more than good timing and a lukewarm push. For success, the White House must be willing to make an all-out effort. For reasons not particularly sound, Saudi Arabia remains one of the least popular nations on Capitol Hill. Iran's vituperative threats against the Saudis since July rioting in Mecca and the now tense situation for the United States in the Gulf make the timing of the administration's Saudi request somewhat more auspicious than it was a few months ago; then the administration on two occasions was forced to pull back its bid.
But many in Congress are not yet persuaded that the new situation in the Gulf makes the Saudis any more deserving of the proposed $1 billion sale of F-15 fighters and Maverick antitank missiles.
Helping the Saudis makes sense:
No question of US aid is involved; the US would be selling rather than donating arms. The 12 to 14 F-15s involved are intended as replacements for those worn out or lost in combat and would be stored on US soil until needed.
The moderate Saudis have given millions of dollars over the years to various nations and insurgencies, often following the administration's lead.
Blaming the Saudis for failing on short notice to intercept the Iraqi plane that attacked the USS Stark has become a convenient excuse for shifting responsibility from Iraq and the US where it more properly belongs. US aircraft have been sold to the Saudis in the past to protect Saudi territory against invasion.
Many in Congress have similarly criticized the Saudis for failing to provide basing facilities for the US in the current Gulf situation. Though the Saudis for political reasons need to keep a low profile regarding such help as they give, Riyadh has been cooperating closely with Washington in radar surveillance, extending its air power for the first time beyond Saudi territorial waters to help monitor and protect US vessels. Saudi minesweepers have also helped clear the path for US-reflagged Kuwaiti tankers.
Yes, the Saudis do support the Palestine Liberation Organization; they view it as a matter of life insurance. For similar reasons, the Saudis have not rushed to embrace US-sponsored peace plans in the Middle East. US lawmakers should make a more earnest effort to look at that situation from the view of the Saudis and the political problems they face rather than routinely accepting the arguments of Israeli lobbying groups. It is noteworthy in that vein that all the aircraft and missiles purchased from the US by the Saudis in years past have been used for self-defense rather than against Israel - a prospect so often raised on Capitol Hill.
The US can hold out for the perfect Arab ally, if one exists; but the moderate Saudis have proved a cooperative and valuable friend over time.
Presumably the Saudis themselves do not relish being at the center of yet another major conflict on Capitol Hill. The White House claims no interest in going forward with a package likely to lose. If the administration feels that the Saudis have a legitimate need - as they do - and that it owes them one more pitch, it should get behind the effort in a major way. A lively debate on the subject should be encouraged. Too often in the past such requests have been shot down before they reached even that stage.