Militarizing the Middle East

If any citizens still entertains notions about a "new" United States policy toward the Middle East emanating from the Reagan administration, he or she should put such thoughts to rest. Sufficient clues are in to show that President Reagan's policy will simply be more of what Americans have become accustomed to over the past decade -- a policy of arms piled upon yet more arms.

Now the administration has decided to sell extremely sophisticated AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in addition to equipment to improve the range and fighting power of its 60 F-15 jet fighters. The administration also has decided to ask Congress for $6.9 billion in military aid for fiscal year 1982, the great bulk of it earmarked for the Middle East. Thus the Reagan administration provides no relief from the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy that routinely approved the annual export of billions of dollars worth of US weaponry to the Middle East.

When the Carter administration proposed the original F-15 sale to the Saudies back in 1978, it was forced to assuage congressional critics who considered the F-15s a direct threat to another US ally in the region, namely Israel. To win congressional assent, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown pledged in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to sell "any other systems or armaments that would increase the range or enhance the ground attack capability of the F-15." And he specifically ruled out auxiliary fuel tanks, multiple bomb ejection racks, or "super-Sidewinder missiles" for the Saudi planes.

But upon taking office the Reagan team revoked this pledge, citing the "serious deterioration in security conditions in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region and the growing threat to our friends there from Soviet and other pressures." To be sure, events since 1978 -- such as the fall of the Shah, the invasion of Afghanistan, the abortive US rescue attempt, and the Iran-Iraq war -- have forever altered some fundamental perceptions and verities in the region. Nevertheless, have these political shockwaves changed the military equation in favor of a sale that would enhance the Saudis's F-15s -- and add the AWACS?

Put aside the question of whether, in the absence of all-out war, the world's leading oil producer (the Soviet Union) would ever attack the world's second leading oil producer (Saudi Arabia). These remains doubt that the Saudis could ever mount a serious defense against a Soviet attack. They simply do not have the human resources to achieve a credible military might versus the Soviet Union. For the foreseeable future Saudi Arabia will have to rely on the threat of direct US military involvement to deter the Soviet "threat" to its territorial integrity, as it always has.

Contrary to the administration's claims, the sale actually increases the Saudis' insecurity because it dramatically raisesx the probability of Saudi Arabia becoming a front-line combatant in the event of another Arab-Israeli war. Indeed, an Israeli general already has been quoted that if the Saudis receive the AWACS planes Israel may be forced into a preemptive strike. The Reagan arms package includes, among other items, fuselage attachments called conformal tanks that will provide the Saudi F-15s with an additional 1,500 gallons of fuel, enough to extend their combat radius from 450 miles to more than 1,000 --within easy reach of every Israeli population center from bases deep within the Arabian peninsula. The Saudis have contributed men or material to every Arab-Israeli war since 1948, and this fact, combined with the potential of the F-15s, makes Saudi Arabia a probable and early target in any Arab-Israeli conflict because of Israel's demonstrated readiness for preemptive strikes.

As for the AWACS planes, these electronic-laden 707s would be able to monitor all of Israel's military activities, locating troops, aircraft, tanks and artillery pieces -- "all of Israel's secrets," according to the Israeli deputy defense minister. American may well find itself the arms merchant to two opposing sides.

But the sales to the Saudis are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Look at the administration's $6.9 billion proposal for military aid in fiscal year 1982. It's curious that, at a time when Americans are being told to expect much less in the way of government-backed mortgages or student loans, the administration has seen fit to introduce a new kind of military aid loan that will allow impoverished countries from Egypt to Pakistan to buy millions of dollars worth of arms for as little as 3 percent interest over a 10-to-30-year period.

If events in the Middle East since 1978 have proven anything, it is the fact that arms imported into the region cannot ensure the stability of any one regime. Nor can any nation be sure about how the arms it sells to the Middle East will end up being used. The fall of the Shah, despite his multibillion-dollar American arsenal, and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran was are incontestable proof.

But the Reagan admin istration is not persuaded.

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