THE problem for the United States in the Persian Gulf today is to determine which of its several original objectives it can now achieve by its continued naval presence. At least five specific objectives were given in the various official statements at the outset of the current US involvement: preserving freedom of navigation, maintaining the flow of oil, keeping the Soviets out, protecting friendly states, and ending the Iraq-Iran war.
Those involved in the policy process have described still other objectives: preventing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, ensuring that Iraq is not defeated, recovering US prestige in the Arab states after the Iran-contra affair, and preserving the economic health of Japan and the European allies. In connection with the latter objective, the US sought greater West European military participation in the region.
A further and conflicting objective is increasingly emerging from those who see Iran as a global strategic prize: to maintain the integrity and independence of Iran.
All of these are legitimate objectives. From the beginning it has been clear that not all could be achieved and that some were in conflict with others. How, for example, could the US play a role in ending the conflict and preserving the integrity of Iran while at the same time cooperating closely with Iraq's allies in the Gulf?
US foreign policy decisions in any administration tend to be made under the pressure of immediate events. Leaders cannot just ``stand there.'' They must ``do something.'' Our political culture, the persistent questions from the news media, and the rush of conflicting bureaucratic elements to prevail dictate that major decisions be made without the lengthy processes of study and consultation that might reveal the longer-term risks.
In the case of the decision to reflag the Kuwaiti tankers and to enter the Persian Gulf caldron in a major way, strong impulses to action were already present in the conventional wisdom about the Gulf.
The area was seen as a major point of confrontation with the Soviets. The flow of oil must be maintained. And, historically, had not the US picked up from the British the global responsibility to protect the Gulf? When these traditional perceptions were combined with concern over the Iraq-Iran war, the strong feelings in the US against Iran, the desire to strengthen the position of the US in friendly Arab countries, and the urge to show strength, involvement was inevitable.
Now, after six months, the achievement of some of the original objectives seems more remote than ever. Efforts to end the war seem stalemated. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese are prepared to support an arms embargo. The Soviets are heavily and, perhaps, effectively involved diplomatically, if not militarily.
Other objectives have, at least for the moment, been achieved. Navigation in the Gulf and the flow of oil continue, if under difficulties and at a higher cost. The West Europeans have a greater fleet presence. The Gulf states appear more certain about the protection and staying power of the US. The Soviet Union, although it may have slightly better relations with Iran than the US, is still held at arm's length by Tehran.
None of this has eased the basic dilemma of the US. For the US to withdraw its naval presence now is not a realistic option; whatever gains have been achieved would be lost.
Iran seems determined to try for a military victory over Iraq. As long as this is the case, the Gulf states remain vulnerable to Iranian attacks. Should such occur, the ability to maintain a firm US position with these states will be in jeopardy if the US response does not meet their expectations. Any such response will set back still further any rapprochement with Iran. Two key objectives remain important - and in conflict.
The US attack on the Iranian oil platform in response to the recent attack on the US flag tanker in Kuwaiti waters was a measured reply that, for the moment, may have satisfied both objectives. A balance of deterrence may have been established which will discourage further escalation.
The task of the US now is to maintain that balance, resisting the temptation to respond dramatically to Iranian provocations and pressures for stronger action by the Gulf states.
This fine line will not be easy to walk, but it would appear now to be the only path to achieving at least some of the original objectives.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.