Negotiations aimed at implementing "Carter doctrine" for the defense of Middle East oil have so far produced mixed results. Administration officials say that the United States has succeeded in making deals for access to ports and airfields in two countries -- Oman and Kenya.
But in a third and perhaps more important case, where the aim is to obtain access to an airfield and port in Somalia, American negotiators have encountered a formidable combination of obstacles. They include the high price being asked by the Somalis for such access as well as Somali involvement in a continuing conflict with neighboring Ethiopia.
And negotiating with Somalia's President Muhammad Siad Barre, said one US official, is a matter of bargaining with "one of the world's greatest rug merchants."
According to several American sources, the Somali leader is asking for an American commitment in economic and military aid that would come to as much as $ 2 billion over a period of several years. American negotiators view this figure as totally unrealistic and believe that through hard bargaining they can reduce the aid figure to more reasonable proportions.
"We'll have to walk away from the negotiations a few times before we pick up that rug," said a US official. "This is an early stage . . . we're only on the first cup of tea."
The official said the successful conclusion of negotiations with both Oman and Kenya had given the US added leverage in its bargaining with the Somalis. Those two deals made the US a bit more sure of its position in the region, he said, and slightly less eager to secure an agreement with Somalia before the price was right.
Of greater concern to some US officials than the high price in aid being asked by Somalia is that country's involvement in the continuing conflict taking place in Ethiopia's Ogaden desert. Officials say that Somalia is using two brigades of regular troops -- several thousand men -- to support the ethnic Somalia guerrillas fighting in the Ogaden. The Ethiopians are fighting with the support of Soviet aid and advice as well as Cuban troops and advisers.
The Us has been trying for several years to get the Somalis to curb their involvement in the Ogaden. In mid-1977, President Carter had decided in principle to sell "defensive weapons" to Somalia but retreated from the position after Somali regular forces invaded the Ogaden. The Somali invasion triggered a major intervention in support of Ethiopia by the Soviet Union and Cuba.
In mid-1978, the US again moved toward opening a military relationship with Somalia but again pulled back before making a clear commitment. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan last December, however, the US began to give high priority to gaining access to the Somali port and airfield at Berbera, situated on the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea 1,000 miles south of the Gulf. The Soviet Union had built military facilities at Berbera but was forced to withdraw from them several years ago as a result of a dispute with Somalia.
Ethiopia is reported to have warned the US a few months ago that if it supplied arms to Somalia, it could lead to an Ethiopian reaction that might include an attack on the facilities which the US is seeking to use in Somalia. At one point the Ethiopians launched several air strikes into Somalia at locations not far to the west of Berbera. US officials said they believed the air strikes were, among other things, meant to be a clear "signal" to the United States.
The Somalis seem to want a full-blown commitment from the US, something which would protect them from Ethiopian retaliation. They decline to renounce their desire to see all Somalis free of Ethiopian domination in the Ogaden.
The US insists that any arms which it sells to Somalia must be "defensive" in nature and that any increase in the level of fighting with Ethiopia or use of regular Somalia forces in the Ogaden would jeopardize the new US relationship with Somalia.
The US has considered supplying an air defense system to Somalia, but officials are concerned about the risk which this might entail for the American advisers who would necessarily have to be part of such a system. As one high-ranking US official put it: "We might have a few hundred people tucked into Berbera. How are we going to protect them?"
In the meantime, a number of Arab nations have disappointed the US by failing to come to the aid of predominantly Muslim Somalia. Saudi Arabia, among others, is said to be unhappy with Somalia's continuing relationship with Egypt. After Egypt and Israel reached the accords last year at Camp David, the Arabs pressed Somalia to break its relationship with Egypt.