By almost every estimate, President Reagan's biggest foreign policy initiative to date -- the AWACS sale -- is in deep trouble in the US Congress. So far, administration officials insist that they have no fallback position to retreat to in the proposed sale of five expensive and sophisticated radar planes to Saudi Arabia.
It is either win or lose for President Reagan on the issue, officials say. No new conditions or strings can be attached to the sale and imposed on the Saudis, the officials insist, mainly because Saudi national pride would not permit it.
One high-ranking State Department official said, meanwhile, that disapproval of the AWACS sale by the Congress would have a devasting effect on President Reagan's credibility abroad, particularly in the Middle East.
"Once he's defeated on that, he loses his aura -- he's a wounded political leader," the official said." . . . The Saudis have made it a test of our whose relationship with them. A loss on this issue would be a defeat for all of our relations with the Islamic countries, from Turkey to Pakistan."
With that much at stake, President Reagan is being urged by his advisers to "pull out all the stop" and to lobby personally and vigorously for the sale among "swing vote" senators who could go either way on the sale.
The conclusion which most observers now seem to draw is that Reagan must work as hard for AWACS as he did for budget and tax bills, or face certain defeat.
Some observers think, however, that even if the President does throw himself into the battle, he will in the end have to attach more conditions to the sale of the radar planes. They think that a possible compromise lies in the proposals made by Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, a former astronaut and marine pilot who commands respect because of his knowledge of military technology. Mr. Glenn , a Democrat serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed that the US share command and control over the AWACS with the Saudis. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has said that such an arrangement would be unacceptable because it would constitute a blow of Saudi sovereignty and national pride.
One of the administration's problems is that is got off of a late start in lobbying for the AWACS sale. While the administration was putting everything into its battle for President Reagan's economic program, friends of Israel on Capitol hill were already fighting full-time against the AWACS. But the pro-Israeli lobbying does not fully explain the trouble which the AWACS sale is in.
In the US Senate, which is the key to victory or defeat for the administration, a formidable combination of liberals and conservatives has emerged in opposition to the radar plane sale. There are those who fear that the AWACS, in combination with other arms sales to Saudi Arabia, will contitute a threat to Israel and others who fear that Saudi Arabia is not secure enough to protect the technology involved. For some, it is more a matter of politics than security:
"For some senators, it's a question of who's going to be the best friend of the US in the region -- Saudi Arabia or Israel," said one congressional specialist on the Middle East. "Those senators couldn't care less about the technical arguments one way or the other."
A disappointingly small number of senators and congressmen showed up to look at the AWACS when a Beoing E3A model was placed on display for the recently at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
"They should at least allow both sides to make its case before they make up their minds," said a key Saudi official who has been pushing for the AWACS sale.
According to this official, the Saudis would prefer to see the proposed sale go to a vote and be defeated rather than see it be withdrawn by the Reagan administration. In the Saudi view, that would at least demonstrate that President Reagan's steadfastness and willingness to see the fight through on their behalf. The strategy of the sale's opponents in the Senate, meanwhile, seems to be to intimidate the administration to the point where it will decide not to formally submit the AWACS sale proposal to the Congress. Formal submission is expected Sept. 30. to defeat the sale, both houses of the Congress must then disapprove within 30 days and by a majority vote or the sale goes through.
A high-ranking Saudi official complained that many senators and congressmen do not seem to take into account the political problems on the Saudi home front which defeat of the sale would cause. He said that the younger generation of technocrats in Saudi Arabia would immediately ask why Saudi Arabia should continue to be helpful to the United States in Lebanon, for example, or in negotiations with the other Arabs over oil supplies and prices.
"We're simply going to be less willing to take risk on behalf of the Americans," the official said.
One American specialist on the subject predicted that defeat on the AWACS would cause the Saudis quietly to distance themselves from the United States in a number of fields and to go increasingly to West Europe, for arms and new construction contracts.