AWACS diplomacy

No United States administration should have encouraged Saudi Arabia in making advanced weaponry the test of US friendship and support. But the Carter administration and the Reagan administration even more have raised Saudi expectations of receiving such weaponry. For Congress to withold it now could have diplomatic costs outweighing its potential military destabilizing effects in the Middle East. This outcome would not actually mean any less US regard for Saudi Arabia's security or any less recognition of its international importance. But in the climate that has been established the Saudis could take it as a humiliating letdown in the eyes of their fellow Arabs -- and a further proof of Israel's overriding political influence on the United States.

Such arguments have become a central part of the debate as the administration prepares to offer its $8.5 billion Saudi arms sales package for formal congressional review in the fall. The sales can go ahead unless opposed by a majority of both houses.

The decision to offer the package, including the particularly controversial AWACS radar planes, was reached last spring. The timing now -- with the Israeli elections over and the suspended US planes back on their way to Israel -- should permit more thoughtful consideration than was likely then.

And it is important that the merits of a still unwelcome situation be examined, minimizing the inevitable view of it as a battle testing the Reagan forces as much as US ties with Saudi Arabia. Will Reagan politicking reduce -- at least in the Republican Senate -- the majorities that are already on record as opposed to the AWACS? Will he find the Israel lobby more formidable than he found the Democratic Party? Such questions should not be allowed to overwhelm more substantive ones:

* What is the purpose of the five AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes? The administration has drawn some mockery for suggesting they are to protect Saudi Arabi against the Soviets, a threat that does not loom as large to the Saudis as Israel and some of their more radical Muslim neighbors. Whether the AWACS would effectively meet such a threat is disputed, but for the Saudis it means a great deal to have and to be seen to have the latest equipment.

According to one point of view, the Saudi government is threatened more by internal than external pressures; by this reasoning it might be doing the Saudis no favor to divert their resources and limited trained manpower to the sophisticated AWACS when other needs may be more urgent.

A counterargument is that the Saudis can afford to take care of both kinds of needs. At some point they should be persuaded not to have to have every new weapon that comes along. But has that point been reached?

* Do the AWACS and enhanced fighter planes promised to the Saudis threaten the security of US friend and client Israel? Israel says yes. Former CIA director Stansfield Turner, even though he has opposed the AWACS sale, is among those who say Israel is fully capable of handling the risks.

* Are there dangers of the advanced AWACS equipment falling into hostile hands? Of US personnel being indefinitely involved in handling it? These are other matters on which the houses of Congress hould hear expert testimony before coming to judgement.

Whatever the answer to such questions, both the administration and Congress should be assured of a key point before any of the military package is authorized:

That Saudi Arabia understands -- and agrees to -- the customary requirement that US arms supplies be used only for defensive purposes.

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