President Carter has committed the United States to a Middle East defense policy that will be years in the making, difficult to implement, and more costly than most Americans seem to realize.
But the President has taken a bold first step in drawing the line around the great oil reservoir of the industrialized democracies.
He has warned the Soviet Union: no farther.
Some now call this the "Carter Doctrine." But so many practical matters remain to be decided that the President's declared intention to fight, if necessary, to defend oil from the Persian Gulf might best be described as a posture -- hardly a full-blown doctrine.
It is nonetheless a posture around which a good number of Americans and European friends of the United States may be able to rally. Indeed, support from several key NATO allies is likely to be critical.
But the reaction of friends of the US in the Gulf itself is much less certain. If, in backing up its warning to the Soviets, the US establishes too obtrusive a presence in or near the Gulf, it could simply exacerbate internal problems for the key oil state and unstated main object of American concern: Saudi Arabia.
At home, President Carter's tough-sounding "doctrine" appeared to undercut much of the Republican criticism, which holds that he has been weak and vacillating in dealing with the Russians. But whether the Soviets themselves will be as impressed as some Americans are remains to be seen. The Soviets are likely to watch what the President does more carefully than what he says.
In a practical sense, nearly everything remains to be done. And behind the new public firmness in the administration, there is a good deal of groping going on. For one thing, the administration has yet to work out clear understandings with the states directly affected by new American policy in northeast Africa, in the Gulf, and elsewhere in Southwest Asia.
Full consultation with the key Middle East countries is apparently yet to come.
Saudi Arabia, for one, was not even mentioned in President Carter's State of the Union address Jan. 23.
Given their sometimes-difficult relations with a number of other Arab states and a recent outburst of intense dissent, the Saudis are reluctant to appear too close to the Americans. This seems to be particularly the case as long as there is no movement toward a solution of the Palestinian problem.
The US has just dispatched its chief negotiator, Sol Linowitz, to the Middle East for another crack at bringing the Egyptians and Israelis closer together on the question of granting the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories what Mr. Carter described in his address as "full autonomy." But there is little real optimism in Washington that much can be done on that score in a presidential election year. Some experts think that, before long, President Carter will have to convene another summit meeting with the leaders of Egypt and Israel. But the hardest of the Palestinian issues could well defy summitry.
Some experts think the most difficult question for the US to deal with in the Gulf region over the next few years will not be direct Soviet aggression but the internal fragility of a number of the nations concerned. What to do about an uprising in the already troubled Pakistani Province of Baluchistan, for example? Or a coup in Saudi Arabia? Under such circumstances any Soviet role might be difficult to detect. But the gradually evolving Carter policy does not address that difficult question in any systematic way.
Under these complex circumstances the US apparently is not in a position to force many Middle Eastern nations to choose sides. This leaves American military officers with the awesome task of backing up the President's words through arrangements falling far short of an alliance. The "Carter Doctrine" will be developed, and negotiated, step by step.
Given the uncertainties in the situation, President Carter has left himself a good deal more flexibility than a first reading of his tough-sounding speech might indicate. To start with, he has not laid out a precise list of the states that the US intends to defend. It is still not entirely clear that the US would go to war with the Soviets over Pakistan, for instance. And Mr. Carter has stopped short of agreeing to a defense treaty with Pakistan, perhaps partly out of concern not to alienate India.
In his address, the President also stressed the need for calm and for careful thought. He did not pronounce the end of detente with the Soviets. He declared that the effort to control nuclear weapons will not be abandoned.
What he did seem to be abandoning, however, was his one-time aim of sharply reducing US and Soviet conventional arms sales overseas as well as the aim of reducing US and Soviet naval forces in the Indian Ocean.
One clear-cut major thing the administration has been doing so far is to build up what is gradually becoming a permanent US naval force in the Indian Ocean. But, in apparent deference to the sensibilities of littoral states, no one is calling it permanent.
Again because of local sensitivities, the administration seems to be ruling out the stationing of any large number of American troops anywhere in or near the Gulf. But this means the development of a highly costly and complex system of Navy and Air Force support for the rapid movement of US troops from thousands of miles away. Many more ships and cargo planes will have to be built. It is going to take years; it is likely to cost more than anyone in the administration has yet publicly admitted.
"We've got a post-Afghanistan policy and a pre-Afghanistan budget," says Richard Perle, a Senate staff aide who has been one of the most articulate critics of the administration's defense programs.