One immediate reaction by Washington to the US Navy's destruction of an Iranian commercial aircraft with the loss of 290 civilian lives was to assert that current United States policies for the Gulf remain unchanged. But will they? On Oct. 23, 1983, 241 US Marines were killed in a suicide car bomb attack on the Marine barracks. It was immediately said that the policy would remain unchanged. Four months later President Reagan ``redeployed'' US forces in Lebanon to naval vessels offshore.
The shooting down of the airliner last Sunday was a ``mistake.'' President Reagan expressed regret for the act. In Congress there was talk of indemnifying the families of the victims. Less visible to the public was a review in the back rooms, at the White House and on Capitol Hill, of the policies which had led to the tragedy.
The avowed purpose of the US naval presence in the Gulf is to protect the flow of oil from Arab countries to the outside world. Another unofficial purpose has been to prevent the Soviets from using the Iran-Iraq war to establish a dominant role in the Gulf. The dual purpose has led to the deployment in the Gulf of a US naval presence well beyond that maintained there by any other nation.
The US currently has a Gulf naval force consisting of one command ship, four destroyers or frigates, one cruiser, and four escorts for the cruiser. There is usually an aircraft carrier group from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean near enough to lend support to ships in the Gulf in case of emergency.
The Soviets have no large warships in the Gulf. They usually patrol with frigates and minesweepers. There is no evidence they have at any time moved to put larger military forces in the Gulf than the US. The Soviets are the major supplier to Iraq of the arms with which it has been winning the war, yet have managed to keep on reasonably friendly terms with Iran. The US has become in effect an active military ally of Iraq in the Gulf. The Soviets have avoided military involvement.
Does the US need to maintain such a relatively large naval presence to fulfill its mission? Smaller vessels could handle the escort work.
Former US Navy Secretary James Webb has questioned the wisdom of putting a ship as valuable as the Vincennes into the Gulf at all. An Aegis-equipped ship, such as the Vincennes, says Mr. Webb, must always strike first as it could be destroyed by a single missile.
As for the unofficial purpose of keeping the Soviets out of the Gulf: The Soviets have been operating throughout the Gulf war under an invisible self-denying ordinance. They easily could have raced with the US in putting naval vessels into the Gulf. They have 48 naval vessels in the Indian Ocean and Near East waters. But they have never put more than three or four into the Gulf at one time, and nothing as big as the Vincennes.
Besides, Mr. Reagan only a month ago returned from his Moscow summit with Mikhail Gorbachev at which such regional issues as the Gulf were discussed and agreements reached beyond matters included in the official communiqu'e.
The Soviets know how sensitive the US and its NATO allies are about the Gulf and access to Gulf oil. It can be assumed that so long as the existing truce exists between Moscow and Washington there will be no overt Soviet attempt to gain control of the Gulf.
One of the many tragic aspects of the affair is that it has happened at a time when there is a lull in US-Soviet competition for areas of influence and control. Neither the US nor the Soviet Union is now behaving like an expansionist power. The Soviets are withdrawing from Afghanistan, have reduced support to Nicaragua, are reaching for a settlement in Angola, have persuaded Vietnam to pull troops out of Cambodia, and have eased up on their controls over Eastern Europe.
At this time (no one can know how long it will last) the Soviet Union is a recessive, not expansionist, power. It is still a superpower, but has gone into a defensive rather than offensive posture. The US does not have to maintain the Vincennes in the Gulf to keep the Soviets out.
Mr. Webb has already launched a debate in Washington over how much naval power the US needs in the Gulf. It is a reasonable guess that before the debate is over the White House will decide to ``redeploy'' at least part of the forces now in the Gulf. It is also a reasonable possibility that the shock of this tragic loss of civilian life will cause the US to follow the Soviets in taking up a generally defensive posture around the world.
The Reagan administration has been earmarked by a brandishing of military power. There will certainly be less brandishing of it in the immediate future.