The Saudi arms sale -- prudent and fair

RECENT events in the Middle East have made it more important than ever that President Reagan prevail in the administration's proposal to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. It must be made clear, especially after the Libya strike, that the United States values and intends to strengthen its ties with moderate Arab nations. But last week's House and Senate committee votes to prevent the sale threaten those relationships and raise the issue of whether a presidential veto can be sustained.

Without our moderate Arab friends, such as Saudi Arabia, we lose any real influence in pursuing a peaceful settlement between Israel and its neighbors. We also lose a partnership that can help to contain the radical anti-Western movements that spill so violently into our lives from that turbulent region of the world.

In the wake of a recent escalation in the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia has urgently requested additional US military equipment. Iran has directly threatened Kuwait as well as other Gulf states. A clear US demonstration of continued willingness to supply arms to the Saudis, even though shipments would not begin until 1989, would be a strong deterrent to Iran.

The proposed sale includes shoulder-fired ground-to-air, air-to-air, and air-to-sea missiles. All of the items are already in the Saudi inventory. Neither the Israeli government nor the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee actively opposes the sale.

So why have more than 60 US senators cosponsored a resolution opposing what should be seen as a routine part of an ongoing arms supply relationship which we have maintained with the Saudis for 30 years?

Many arguments and counterarguments are raised, but it is my view that many of those opposing the sale have allowed differences of viewpoint between the US and Saudi Arabia to cloud their understanding of the long-term interests our two nations share.

The US and Saudi Arabia do look at a number of issues differently.

Saudi Arabia criticized the US raid on Libya. This should have been no surprise. The Saudis themselves have not been immune to Muammar Qaddafi's excesses, and they certainly have private sympathy for US frustration, but they cannot be expected to approve a military action against an Arab nation. After all, some of our NATO allies have been equally critical of the raid.

The Saudis sympathize with the Palestinian people and support what they consider to be the moderate group of Palestinian leaders. Friendship with the US will not alter this fundamental Saudi view, but it could help influence it in a direction that is in keeping with a peaceful approach to a Mideast settlement.

We also disagree on oil policy. It is in the Saudis' interest to have a relatively high, stable world price for oil. Their current flooding of the oil market is designed to encourage suppliers to organize the market to achieve that end. It is in the interest of US consumer groups to have a stable, reasonable price for oil determined by market forces. We maintain strong ties with many other nations with which we have commercial differences, and the key role of Saudi Arabia in the world oil picture only enhances the need to maintain our friendship and close working relationship. Overriding these differences is the strategic role Saudi Arabia plays in the Middle East.

There are many areas where our strongest interests coincide:

The Saudis have taken the lead in protecting the shipping and oil installations of the upper Gulf, and US military sales will improve their ability to continue to do so. President Reagan and President Carter before him pledged to use force to protect the free flow of Persian oil. The Libyan raid was only a minor military operation, compared with what would be necessary for the US to meet a threat to the Gulf single-handedly.

Saudi military strength and its support for its neighbor Gulf states have provided a strong deterrent to the Ayatollah Khomeini's efforts to spread revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region by force.

Saudi Arabia played a helpful role in Lebanon in attempting to end the fighting and assisting the US in withdrawing its troops.

The Saudis are a moderating force within the Arab world on the Israeli question. Even though Saudi Arabia has not adopted US peace efforts as its own, the Saudis have worked to shift the Arab consensus away from military confrontation with Israel.

We must continue to support the legitimate self-defense needs of our moderate Arab friends. We must treasure and strengthen our friendship with them because it is in our interest and in the best interest of the Middle East peace process to do so.

The Reagan administration was right to respond quickly and decisively to the Saudi request. President Reagan is now said to be personally committed to vetoing a resolution of disapproval of the sale. Presidential leadership and involvement are crucial. If the President can persuade the Congress to take a long-term view of the US national interest, his veto won't be necessary.

Charles H. Percy, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heads an international trade consulting firm in Washington.

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