During the latest week in world affairs, Ronald Reagan tried urgently to persuade the United States Congress to let him make up for a past mistake by putting the American flag on 11 Kuwaiti tankers plying the waters of the Persian Gulf. The President's argument for the operation was, ``If we don't do the job, the Soviets will.'' He meant that, unless the US picks up a share of the job, Kuwaiti tankers might all go through the Gulf under Soviet protection.
The irony of the situation is that the Soviets are already in the Gulf, and are already protecting some Kuwaiti vessels at the request of Kuwait, because back in 1984 the US refused to provide the Stinger antiaircraft weapons that Kuwait requested.
The record is important if we are to understand the precise situation in the Gulf today. The Kuwaitis asked for the Stinger missiles in early 1984. They were turned down on May 31 of that year. In July 1984, a Kuwaiti delegation flew to Moscow and signed an agreement to buy $327 million worth of Soviet weapons. In December of that year, a Soviet military team was in Kuwait teaching the Kuwaitis how to use the Soviet weapons.
The refusal to sell the Stingers to Kuwait in 1984 was due to the opposition of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington to the sale of US weapons to any Arab country. One result is that the Kuwaitis have learned to use Moscow as leverage to get what they want from Washington.
The Kuwaitis are going to have three tankers flying under Soviet flag, and thus under Soviet protection, and 11 tankers under US flag and protection. But it is too late for President Reagan to achieve his stated purpose. He said that if the US fails to put its flag on the 11 Kuwaiti tankers ``we would open opportunities for the Soviets to move into this choke point of the free world's oil flow.''
But the Soviets were given their ``opportunity,'' in a sense, in 1984. The immediate question is whether Congress will allow Mr. Reagan to run the risk of getting into a war with Iran in order to convoy some Kuwaiti oil so that the Soviets won't be doing all of the convoying.
The pity of it is that the White House is so preoccupied with trying to minimize the Soviet role in the Gulf that it has apparently been unable to recognize an opportunity to try doing constructive mutual business with the Soviets.
On June 5, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov proposed talks with the US about mutual protection of shipping in the Gulf. White House chief of staff Howard Baker was asked about it the same day, and called it a ``unique'' opportunity. But nothing concrete has happened. So we are probably going to have competitive protection of Kuwait's oil, instead of cooperative protection. There is also no sign that anyone in the White House is thinking seriously about the possibility that Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union is something new and different.
At the recent economic summit meeting in Venice, it is reported that those present tried to raise this matter with Mr. Reagan, but that he just read back some lines from one of his recent speeches.
It is now 40 years since American foreign policy was grounded on the doctrine of ``containment.'' That doctrine was built on the Soviet Union's characteristics at the time. The Kremlin was inherently expansionist and ideologically disinterested in accommodations of any kind with the ``capitalist'' world. Its leadership believed in the ultimate self-destruction of capitalism and the ultimate acceptance by all the world of communism. So why bother accommodating the West?
Those were the days leading to the ``cold war.'' There was a civil war in Greece of uncertain outcome. There would soon be the Korean war. Communist parties were strong in France and Italy. It was deeply feared in Washington that both countries would go communist.
George Kennan, who articulated the doctrine of ``containment'' in an anonymous, much-quoted article in Foreign Affairs magazine, wrote that the US would be warranted in embarking ``upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.''
But the record shows that George Kennan and the other ``wise men'' of that era thought ``firm containment'' would have to be practiced for perhaps 10 or 15 years. Kennan's article noted that no movement, ``and particularly not that of the Kremlin - can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.''
The present ``state of affairs'' is that communism has discredited itself by economic failures in country after country, while the Western capitalist system has gone from triumph to triumph, producing societies affluent beyond the dreams of the people of only 40 years ago.
No one can be sure about how long Mr. Gorbachev will be in control in Moscow. He faces resistance to his reforms.
The opportunity for a new exploration of the possiblities of an easier East-West relationship may be brief. But there is no sign that Mr. Reagan senses an opportunity that could enliven the twilight of his presidency.