PRESIDENT REAGAN'S statement of May 29 in support of an expanded United States military role in the Persian Gulf gave four reasons for this action: to prevent control of the Gulf by the Soviets or Iranians; to protect the flow of oil and freedom of navigation; to reassure friends and allies; and to contribute to an end to the Iraq-Iran war. The problem the administration now faces with Congress and US friends and allies is that the unilateral US military approach being undertaken may reduce, rather than enhance, the achievement of these objectives.
US strategic thinkers, whether in Democratic or Republican administrations, have been obsessed with the Soviet threat to the Gulf. Clearly, Soviet domination of the Gulf would be contrary to the vital interests of the US.
But is the Soviet threat the central problem today?
The Kuwaiti request that the two superpowers put its tankers under their flags has given the Soviets an opportunity to send their warships to the Gulf. But Soviet ships are not new to the Gulf. The Soviets have been supplying arms to Iraq and, occasionally, to other Gulf states. If the US supports the principle of freedom of navigation for ships of all nations, the US cannot legitimately exclude the Soviets.
The Soviet threat to the US position in the Gulf may come less in the presence of its military than through the more active diplomatic role that nation is now playing in the Middle East. While the states of the Gulf may fear the Soviet system and power, they acknowledge Soviet support for the Palestinian cause. The large Palestinian presence in the Gulf states makes this a plus for the Soviet Union; it accounts, also, for the reluctance of the states in the region to show more unequivocal support for the US.
Soviet diplomacy may have more potential for threatening US interests than is presented by the presence of their warships, given the domestic constraints on US policies toward the Arab states. The Soviets played no role in the oil embargo in 1973; that came about in protest against the US resupply of Israel during the Yom Kippur war.
Certainly the United States does not wish to see the Gulf dominated by Iran. Many nations, undoubtedly including the USSR, share that desire. Soviet efforts to gain influence in post-revolutionary Iran have been little more successful than those of the United States.
The President expresses the hope that US actions will contribute to an end to the Iraq-Iran war. The point has obviously now been reached when US policymakers no longer believe the continuation of this war can be tolerated. The US to date has had little influence in efforts to end this conflict. Perhaps no outside nation can succeed in ending the war until both belligerents are ready to talk and an opportunity opens for the peacemaker.
Iran has clearly not reached this point. When that point is reached, however, the United States is likely to be more effective in playing a role if it has not tilted conspicuously toward one side. US naval engagements with Iran in protection of the ships of Kuwait, a strong ally of Iraq, are not likely to give the US the credentials of an impartial mediator.
Another option might have been possible in response to Kuwait's request for international protection for its tankers. Perhaps it is, even now, not too late. Such an approach would call for an international regime, established either through action of the United Nations Security Council or through a meeting of major maritime powers. The US is already pursuing in the Security Council, with support of the USSR, efforts to limit arms sales to the Gulf belligerents. The USSR endorses the principle of freedom of navigation and was frequently an ally of the US on such issues in the UN Law of the Sea conference. Allies and friends of the United States would prefer an international umbrella for any military involvement on their part.
The thought of US cooperation with the USSR to seek solutions to Middle East problems is an anathema to many in the US. Yet it may be preferable to another open-ended military action in the area which an administration is justifying to the American public more on the basis of the rhetoric of strategy than by a careful analysis of the circumstances.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.