President Carter is pursuing a commitment to defend the Persian Gulf which he cannot back up -- exposing American armed forces to grave risks. So says Ronald Reagan's chief foreign policy adviser.
Richard V. Allen charges, among other things, that the four radar warning planes which the US has sent to Saudi Arabia, at Saudi request, are in an "undefended position."
Defense Department officials counter that the planes are capable of detecting potential attackers and either dashing to safety or calling on Saudi or US naval planes for protection.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters on Oct. 28, Mr. Allen also revealed for the first time that he and other Reagan advisers had been given a briefing on the American hostages in Iran by a high-ranking State Department official, Harold Saunders, an assistant secretary of state.
Allen said that Mr. Saunders, in his briefing on Oct. 27, indicated that the administration had not engaged in dealings with Iran which would depart from the administration's public statements on the subject.
Allen, who was a deputy assistant to President Richard M. Nixon for international economic affairs, said that he would be opposed to any deal with Iran which resulted in a "tilt" in favor of the Iranians in their war with Iraq. But he said that once the hostages were released, supplying Iran with US military spare parts already contracted for but whose delivery was frozen because of the hostage-taking would not constitute such a tilt. He would oppose the sale of any new US weapons to Iran.
In response to repeated questions, Allen said that he and other Reagan advisers could not yet give even a rough estimate of what they think the cost should be for an adequate US defense budget. One of Reagan's main themes has been criticism of the Carter administration for an alleged failure to spend enough on defense.
On defense of the Gulf, Allen declined to go so far as to accuse President Carter of engaging in "brinkmanship" with the Soviet Union in that oil-rich region. But he did assert that Carter's pledge last January to repel any outside assault on the region and the gradual commitment of US air and naval power to the region since then involved great risks.
"This incremental movement toward an American commitment . . . without the capacity to fulfill the stated purposes of that commitment is a highly risky business," said the Reagan foreign policy adviser.
This was a variation on a constant Reagan theme: Through alleged military weakness, the Carter administration may tempt aggression from the Soviets or their allies.
To back up the argument, Allen declared that the American public should not confuse the access which the Carter administration has obtained to several bases in the region with high-quality, American-run bases. As an example, he spoke of Masira Island off the east coast of Oman, which American planes have used for refueling. Oman is a focal point of administration strategy along with Somalia and Kenya. The base was incapable of handling major aircraft, he said.
A Defense Department spokesman said that the administration never intended for Masira to be an American base and never described it thus to the American public.
What the US wanted and what it is getting, he said, is the capability to use the island, along with other facilities in Oman and in Somalia and Kenya, for the resupply of the huge American naval force now stationed in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
On the question of the "undefended" US radar planes in Saudi Arabia, a Defense Department spokesman noted that the planes are flying at a distance of at least 200 to 250 miles from potential attacking planes in Iran. The giant radar planes, known as AWACs, can detect attackers as they take off and, if pursued, can fly away from attackers at a speed of more than 500 miles an hour. An attacking plane would then have to be refueled.