Maintaining Mideast leverage

NEITHER the Reagan administration nor the government of Saudi Arabia should take too much comfort from the close Senate vote sustaining the President's plan to sell $265 million worth of arms to the Saudis. Granted, the White House probably had several extra votes ``in the pocket'' if they were needed.

But what the overall votes on the Saudi package indicate is that there is deep disquiet within Congress about a broad range of issues related to the Mideast. Not the least of Congress's qualms is the perception that there is no current Reagan administration initiative aimed at ensuring a broader American framework for peace throughout that region.

Opponents of the Saudi sale had a number of concerns: that it is questionable to sell sophisticated weapons to a nation that financially supports terrorists; that the Saudis -- by seeking to push up oil prices -- have been insufficiently supportive of the industrial needs of Western nations; and that the sale works to the disadvantage of Israel.

The Saudi arms package makes good sense within a larger set of considerations. Saudi Arabia is a moderate, even conservative Arab state. Economically, it is linked to the West through its oil deliveries -- and its petrodollars, which have been deposited in Western banks and invested in Western stock markets. The Saudis seek long-term political and economic stability, both for themselves and for the Middle East.

That's why Mr. Reagan was definitely correct in pushing ahead with the arms package. If the administration is to keep any hand in the Middle Eastern diplomatic process, it needs to protect its ties to moderate Arab states.

Many lawmakers are willing to blur distinctions about Arab nations because of an abhorrence of terrorism. Many Arabs are terrorists. But not all Arabs are terrorists. Nor are all terrorists Arabs, as terrorism's victims in the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Central America, Northern India, and Iran recognize.

The Saudi vote suggests that the Reagan administration needs to reassert, not continue to disengage, its foreign policy hand in the Middle East, including forging better links with Arab moderates.

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