In Southwest Asia -- the name now current for the extended crisis area of the Middle East -- the Reagan administration is giving priority to beefing up the West's military position all the way from the Bosporus through the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and up to the Khyber Pass.
The Soviet threat, all the greater since the collapse of the Shah of Iran and Moscow's sending of troops into Afghanistan, is the new administration's most immediate concern. Such political issues as the stalled talks on autonomy for the Palestinians are being made to wait. But there are Middle East specialists both in and out of government here who expect the aministration to come to see within the next few months that the political issues cannot be sidetracked for long without great risk.
The immediate aim of the administration's military moves is to make clear to the Soviet Union that the United States has the capability and the credibility to respond with force if Moscow: (1) threatens Western access to the vital oil of the Gulf; or (2) edges forward to establish a Soviet presence in an eventually disintegrating Iran.
he new administration is in fact building on the initiatives taken by the Carter administration immediately after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is increasing allocations in the defense budget both for the Rapid Deployment Force decided on by the last administration and for developing the facilities to which the US has access in Oman, Somalia, and Kenya, and on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. These facilities, for the most part, are airfields, deepwater jetties, and supply dumps which would be activated only in an emergency -- presumably by the Rapid Deployment Force.
The most forward elements of the force are on two aircraft-carrier battle groups in the Indian Ocean. These ships carry 2,000 marines. Because of their size, the aircraft carriers in the groups would not normally enter the Gulf. But a smaller Middle East force (now five ships) of frigates and destroyers is within the Gulf and has been stationed there since 1948. Under present plans, if American ground troops and tanks had to be brought into the area, they would have to be transported all the way from the US.
The main beneficiary of this shield, of course, is Saudi Arabia, together with the smaller oil-producing states on the Arab side of the Gulf. All of them tacitly welcome the buildup of US strength in the area -- provided it is kept out of sight or over the horizon.When senior US officials raise the desirability of bases in the area -- above all in Saudi Arabia -- local Arab rulers are inclined to recoil. It is interesting to note that in two television appearances this week, US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger recognized the desirability of having US forces geographically close to the Gulf but insisted that they can be stationed on land in the area only if requested by the host country. Some might say that the new administration is learning.
Despite Saudi sensitivities generally about a US military presence of any kind on Saudi territory, the Saudi authorities did request and get four US AWACS planes based on local airfields to monitor military movements at the head of the Gulf after the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq last year.
As a further gesture of US good faith toward and commitment to Saudi Arabia, the Reagan administration reversed earlier this month a Carter administration decision and will let the Saudis buy supplementary fuel tanks to increase the range of the F-15 jet fighter aircraft on order from the US.
In the broader pattern of Southwest Asian security, the administration's announcement earlier this week of increases in US military assistance to selected countries in the fiscal year 1982 indicates a boosting of help to those willing to cooperate in defending the area. On the list are Oman, Somalia, and Kenya -- the three kay countries letting the US use facilities on their territory. The list also includes Egypt, Israel, Sudan, and Turkey.
Egypt is making available to the US facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea.It also allows the US use of Cairo West airfield, well out in the desert outside the Egyptian capital. Voices have been raised in Israel and among Israel's supporters in the US in favor of persuading Washington to develop, instead of Ras Banas, the Israeli-held airbases at Etzion and Eitam in sinai, due to be evacuated next year under the Camp David withdrawal plan.
But President Sadat of Egypt is opposed to a US takeover those bases when the Israelis withdraw, even though the Egyptians themselves will not be able to use them under the Camp DAvid demilitarization plan. For domestic political purposes, Mr. Sadat needs Etzion and Eitam turned over by the Israelis to the Egyptians -- not to the Americans. A further argument for Ras Banas is the proximity of the oil refinery at Yanbu which the Saudis are building opposite Ras banas. This would make fuel for US equipment at Ras Banas easily available.
Significant is the amount of aid being earmarked for Turkey, up from the $250 million this year to $400 million next year. This makes Turkey the third biggest recipient of military aid after Israel ($2.1 billion) and Egypt ($1.6 billion).
Turkey and Pakistan, at opposite ends of the Southwest Asia arc, have the biggest armies in the area. Both have reputations as fighting forces, but both are striving to make do with out-of-date equipment. The size of the sum being earmarked for Turkey suggests that the US intends helping update Turkey's arsenal. Pakistan is not yet on the list of those to get military help, but the State Department says a review of Pakistan's needs is under way. This prompts speculation that if Pakistan agrees, the US may be considering assistance to help update Pakistan's forces.
There is a special snag about US aid to Pakistan. The Symington amendment was invoked by the US in 1979 to cut off American help to Pakistan because of the latter's suspected program to produce a nuclear bomb. IT ramains to be seen whether the Reagan administration would ask Congress to repeal or otherwise change the Symington amendment.
Another snag about US American military aid to Pakistan is the negative effect it could have on US relations with Indian -- just as the increase in US military aid to Turkey may disturb Greece.
Next: The stalled Palestine autonomy talks.