Dialogue in the Persian Gulf

What we are seeing in the Persian Gulf today is a demonstration that what Arab leaders say publicly may represent their true position. For many years, Arab leaders in the Gulf have made clear in public statements their reluctance to see outside military intervention in the area. The Saudis, in particular, have reinforced this by a continuing refusal to grant access to their bases or to permit specific prepositioning of materiel in anticipation of a contingency.

At the same time, US strategists and military planners have come away from conversations with Saudi officials saying: ''They explained to us that they have to say the things they do publicly for political reasons. They lead us to believe, however, that when the chips are down, they will ask us to come in.''

On the basis of such conversations, the United States has developed plans for a Rapid Deployment Force and presidents have spoken of our readiness to intervene in this vital region.

Our dialogue with leaders of other cultures is often clouded by our desire to hear what we want to hear rather than what the others may actually be saying. This has been particularly true in talks between officials and private citizens from the US and Arabs in the Gulf.

The Arab is culturally polite. He likes to please his visitor. He wants, also , to keep his options open. He equivocates courteously and leaves the American with an impression that, at the proper time, he will request help.

The American's sense of the conversation is reinforced by what the American considers the logic of the situation. Surely, says the American to himself, these weak states, faced with the threat of military action by Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran or by the Soviets not far away in Afghanistan, will have to request our military help. That, to the American, is the reality. He discounts public utterances to the contrary.

To the Arab states in the Gulf, there is another logic. The fundamental objective of these relatively weak regimes is to preserve their ruling position and their independence. They feel that they are less threatened today by outside aggression than by internal challenges. They fear the adverse political effects of appearing to be isolated from the Arab mainstream or to be in the ''pocket'' of an outside power.

They also hear and take seriously the public expressions that come from the United States: the strong statements of support for Israel, the opposition to the sale of military equipment to Arab states, the votes in Congress against sending US forces abroad, the US determination to be free of dependence on Middle East oil. They may well fear that, if they did ask for help, help might not come.

At the same time, recognizing their international weakness and their strong economic ties to the West, they do not want to say ''no'' to pressures for cooperation. Their vague responses can be interpreted as the listener chooses.

It is appropriate for the military planner to prepare for every contingency. It is less appropriate for officials to speculate publicly that contingencies in the Gulf will ultimately require US forces. Such speculation only reinforces the strength of the Arab denials that they will request such help.

President Reagan has recognized the public positions of the Gulf states in stressing that we cannot enter the crisis with our forces unless we are requested to do so. Yet much of the public and official comment in the United States still suggests that we are discounting the logic of the Arabs' public expressions and applying a logic of our own.

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