Firm ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia will remain important to Mideast stability whether or not Congress permits President Reagan's sale of AWACS radar planes to the Saudis. Thus it is important for the still young US administration to do its part toward establishing the best atmosphere and attitudes for such ties. This means conveying to the Saudis the kind of concern for their security which Mr. Reagan has -- but in a wiser manner than he chose at last Thursday's news conference.
By declaring that "we will not permit" Saudi Arabia to become another Iran, he no doubt intended, as officials said, to underscore US support, especially when Congress is making noises about halting the AWACS deal. But the effect was to suggest publicly that the US was assuming the role of Saudi internal protector and demeaning the Saudis' ability to take care of matters that are their own business. It would have been tactless with any country, but the Saudis particularly prefer quiet diplomacy, and they have already been embarrased by the Washington wrangling over how far they can be relied on to operate and safeguard the radar planes.
It is not that the Saudis are free from threats of the domestic turmoil that shook Iran. Indeed, in arguing against the AWACS planes, former CIA Director Stansfield Turner has called them a distraction from the Saudi leadership's "most likely threats -- internal disorder or rebellion and guerrilla warfare backed by its neighbors. And the US has reportedly been helping the Saudis to improve their military capacity to handle such uprisings as the takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca a couple of years ago.
The responsibility, however, must belong to the Saudis -- and, especially from their point of view, be seen by world as belonging to the Saudis, not to their big brother across the water.Mr. Reagan cited Western dependency on Saudi Arabia's oil as a anyone who would shut off that oil. When threats are seen as external such as from Moscow, this sounds like the Carter doctrine for the Persian Gulf. The Carter doctrine, though presented in the interests of Gulf countries as well as the US, was criticized for seeming to be imposed on, rather than requested by, the beneficiaries. Now Mr. Reagan appears to have escalated US responsibility by ensuring the Saudis' internal security, something very difficult for the beneficiary to acknowledge publicly that it needs or wants -- and very difficult for even a superpower to guarantee on another country's turf.
In answer to a follow-up question on whether he would resort to military means of intervention, the President did not deny that he would do so, though he declined to go into specifics. It would have been better all around not to have opened up the subject during a conference that generally showed him in smooth command of the situation.