THE Reagan administration is, in fits and starts, developing a policy about what to do in the Persian Gulf. Yet there is still a need to reach a broader policy consensus. The situation is made urgent by Kuwait's request to the Soviet Union and ourselves to protect their oil tankers. It is made dangerous by the attack on the USS Stark, and the possibility that other attacks, more likely from Iran, could follow. And it is made controversial by the Reagan administration's failure to articulate a convincing rationale for greater US involvement in the Gulf. The rationale exists, however. US interests in this part of the world are considerable. At stake are energy supplies for the US and its allies, freedom of the seas, and the containment of Soviet and Iranian power. US interests in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East would be dealt a severe blow by an interruption of the oil flow or by the establishment of regimes tilting toward either Tehran or Moscow. Western economic growth, peace prospects in the Middle East, the NATO-Warsaw Pact balance - all would be affected adversely.
What then should Washington do? The US is right to respond favorably to Kuwait's request to protect shipping. Iran and Iraq cannot be allowed to interfere with impunity with the world's economy. If the US can safely assume this responsibility using highly capable surface ships, fine; if not, it should make any ``yes'' to Kuwait contingent on having Kuwait or one of its neighbors provide the US with access to local air facilities. What is certain is that neither foreign tankers nor American vessels can be protected without adequate air defense. Reliance on US aircraft carriers located outside the Persian Gulf would be highly inefficient and placing carriers inside the Gulf highly risky. Moreover, before accepting this task, Washington should understand the risks. Washington must be prepared not only to destroy threatening aircraft or patrol boats, but to respond against military assets in Iran (or Iraq, for that matter) if US forces are attacked. Military escalation is thus a possibility, although the US should be able to prevail without sustaining substantial losses.
Second, the US ought to establish the containment of Iran as an explicit foreign policy aim. Jimmy Carter's 1980 doctrine - ``An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force'' - should be amended to include any local force. Iran, as much if not more than the USSR, threatens American interests in this region.
This does not require Washington's taking sides in the Iran-Iraq war short of an imminent and potentially decisive Iranian breakthrough, but rather providing assistance to local states to reduce their vulnerability. Those in the Congress who oppose arms sales to friendly Arab states might want to reconsider. The alternatives could be Iranian primacy or direct US intervention.
Washington ought as well to intensify its dialogue with the Soviets. Anytime US and Soviet forces operate in close proximity in an area of important contested interests, there is a danger of miscalculation. Some common rules of the road are needed; for example, support for freedom of shipping and the territorial integrity of all states. Such a dialogue could both warn - the Soviets should be under no illusions about either US interests or its commitment to defend them - and reassure - the US does not seek to intervene in Iran or establish a direct threat to the USSR.
Washington also needs to continue consulting with European allies and Japan. They can do more to bolster the economic and military strength of Iran's neighbors, Iraq and Kuwait in particular. Although the Persian Gulf lies well beyond NATO's formal legal boundaries, the allies must also be made to understand the corrosive political effect that their nonparticipation in efforts to protect shipping has on support for the alliance in this country.
Last, the administration needs to build consensus at home. For too long the War Powers Resolution has been viewed only as a source of undesired constraint on the executive. In a crisis it can be, but there is a difference between crisis and urgency. There is ample time for the administration to make a case for a robust response and bring a majority in the Congress and the public on board a responsible policy in the Persian Gulf. With hostilities not yet imminent, invoking the War Powers Act may not be legally necessary, but it could prove politically wise. A democratic superpower is the only kind the US can be.
Richard Haass teaches at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.