About one half of Western Europe's oil passes through the Persian Gulf. Only about 2 percent of the United States' oil does. But the Europeans aren't worrying about problems in the Gulf. They are preoccupied with problems closer to home, concerned about becoming engaged too far afield.
``America is showing its muscles, but for what purpose?'' asks Daniel Hermand of the French Institute of Military Studies. ``It's another American overdramatization.''
Mr. Hermand says the Gulf and its oil represent ``an umbilical cord'' for the West. But he describes Iraq's attack against the USS Stark, an American guided missile frigate, as an isolated accident.
``These attacks on tankers have been going on since 1984 and the flow of oil has not stopped,'' he says.
The Europeans' advice is: Don't heighten tensions. Calm them. The Europeans recall the divisive political emotions generated throughout the Continent by the US bombing of Libya last April.
``People here don't want to hear anything more about the Middle East,'' says Jonathan Luxmoore of the London-based Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies. European hostages in Lebanon make their governments even more hesitant to offend the Arabs or become involved, he says. ``Whenever the Americans raise the word Gulf, the Europeans keep their heads down.''
In large part, this reticence stems from the present European preoccupation with arms control.
French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl held a joint press conference at the Elys'ee Palace here Friday and did not talk about the Gulf situation. Almost the entire session was taken by a discussion of whether the Europeans should accept the Soviet offer to withdraw most medium-range weapons from the Continent.
Great Britain, meanwhile, is immersed in its national elections. British newspapers relegated most news about the Stark attack to the inside pages, and analysts speculated that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would want handle Gulf situation cautiously during the campaign.
``The government might want to do something quick and easy to show it is strong and assertive,'' Mr. Luxmoore says. ``But action in the Gulf is bound to lead to complications, so I figure Thatcher will be reluctant to act just now.''
Despite all these hesitations, Europe retains a certain presence in the region. Both the French and British base military forces in the Gulf - the French have 4,000 men and several squadrons of Mirages in Djibouti and the British military advisors and ships in Oman.
France is especially active. An Iraqi piloting a French-built Mirage fighter carried out the attack on the USS Stark. French advisors trained the Iraqi pilots to use the French Exocet missiles that did the damage.
Between 1977 and 1985, France sold more than $11.8 billion of high technology weaponry to Iraq, according to Ken Timmerman, a Paris-based editor for the Journal of Defense and Diplomacy. That figure, Mr. Timmerman says, ``made Iraq the top export customer of the French armaments industry.''
French support to Iraq is motivated by more than mere mercantile concerns. The French military presence, officials argue, contributes to lessening Soviet influence in Iraq.
But this ``alternative'' may mean trouble for the US and its allies.
``This is just the last example of recurring irritations,'' he says. ``There's Libya, arms control, commercial disputes - lots of little things which go badly and add up into a trend that makes me worry about the future of the alliance.''