Amateurs in foreign policy

IN the mass of information that has so far come out of the story of guns to Iran and money for the contras of Nicaragua, there is no evidence that those involved in that complex operation gave thought to the effect the sale of guns to Iran might have had on the Iran-Iraq war or on the balance of power in the Middle East. There was primary thought to the possibility of getting release of the Americans being held hostage somewhere in Lebanon. There was said to have been much interest in opening up relations with a supposedly ``moderate'' political element in Iran. But there is no record of anyone's stopping for a moment and saying: ``Hey, what happens when the Iranians get the guns?''

In a properly run government the Iran-contra affair could not happen. The idea would have been processed through the foreign office. The experts there would have pointed out the dangerous possible consequences to the long-term interests of the country (in this case the United States). Their views would have been given weight in the decision process. The decision would have gone against any such operation, for a reason that was illustrated last week in the Persian Gulf, when a US naval task force entered and moved to the top of the Gulf to put a protecting arm around the shoulders of small, vulnerable, and endangered Kuwait.

Last week Washington, and all allied and friendly associates, had reason to worry about Kuwait.

Kuwait is small. Its population is less than 2 million. Its size is less than that of New Jersey.

But Kuwait has oil reserves estimated at about 70 billion barrels. More than that, it is the Gulf country nearest to Iran and the first in line of attack if the fundamentalist Shiite regime in Iran should decide to move south against the conservative, capitalist, and pro-Western Arab countries to the south, all of which are under dominant Sunni governments.

Kuwait and its southern neighbors are safe so long as Iran's energies are taken up in the war against Iraq. But if Iran were to win a sudden and decisive victory over Iraq - then things most unfortunate, from an American and Western point of view, could happen.

Kuwait, along with its neighbors Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, sits on the world's largest pool of oil. Their governments belong to the Western economic and political community. They sell their oil to the West (in this sense including Japan). They buy their consumer goods, their engineering, and their technical knowledge from the West. They are an important part of the economic system on which the well-being of the United States and its partners in the world depend.

Ayatollah Khomeini does not like the governments of those Arab countries to the south which deal so intimately with the US and Western Europe. Islamic fundamentalists have been active against the government in all of them. The fact that they have given help to Iraq is further reason for Ayatollah Khomeini's dislike of those governments. There is little doubt that he would overthrow the lot of them, if he could.

How near did the Ayatollah come last week to getting his chance? The battle for Basra must have been fierce and its outcome uncertain, from such information as we have been able to obtain. US weapons were used in the Iranian attacks. Iranian morale was undoubtedly aided, and Iraqi morale damaged, by general knowledge that the US had sold weapons to Iran.

There were other reasons for not doing what was done. But the strongest reason is the damage that could flow to US long-term national interests.

Amateurism in foreign policy is not new in Washington. It derives usually from making foreign policy for domestic political reasons rather than for the inherent merit, or demerit, of some particular policy.

In this case the sale of guns to Iran was done inside the White House, against the advice of both the State and Defense Departments. The diversion of funds to the contras was allegedly done without even the knowledge of the State Department. It was deliberately concealed from them.

This is plain amateurishness in foreign policy. Trouble usually results when politicians and ideologues take over from the professionals. It did this time.

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