Why not a Gulf multilateral force?

IN an official policy statement in June, the Department of State listed three objectives for its reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers: to protect the unimpeded flow of oil; to stand by American friends in the Gulf; and to limit Soviet influence. After three months, it is legitimate to ask whether any of these goals have been achieved. Certainly, the flow of oil is far from ``unimpeded''; navigation generally is seriously impaired. Ships not under the precise protection of a major power are subject to indiscriminate attack. Japanese-flag tankers are not going into the Gulf; insurance rates have risen substantially.

The Arab states friendly to the United States in the Gulf seem clearly to welcome the US presence, but remain reticent about open cooperation or formal requests for help beyond those from Kuwait. As the negotiations at the United Nations demonstrate, the Soviet Union is a major diplomatic player in the Gulf issue. Soviet ships have been in the Gulf from the beginning of the crisis.

These circumstances suggest that US basic objectives are not being realized; it would seem logical to consider alternatives to the present course.

From the beginning of this involvement, US objectives have been inherently contradictory. To exercise our influence as a nation to bring about freedom of navigation is justifiable. Two other objectives - to lend support to those Arab states generally favoring Iraq and to prevent an expansion of the Soviet presence - are not compatible with the first.

If the overriding concern is to ensure the health of the world economy by maintaining access for all to the oil supplies of the Gulf, the objective of ensuring free navigation should be undertaken on a truly international basis and without regard to the source of the oil.

The administration points out that international cooperation exists now; ships of many nations, including those of US allies, are protecting shipping. Informal coordination among the friendly fleets in the region undoubtedly exists. The fleets in the area, however, are not seen by either the belligerents or the global community as representing a unified action.

Creating a multinational force to preserve freedom of navigation for all in the Gulf would, obviously, raise a number of difficult issues. The Soviets would insist on being a part of such a force. Questions of costs and coordination would be complex. European nations might be reluctant to give their navies the necessary authority to discourage attacks from whatever quarter.

But would not a strong declaration by the United Nations Security Council in favor of freedom of navigation, backed up by a force under UN auspices, have a number of advantages, including some for the US?

Determined actions by combined fleets to discourage attacks on shipping could bring about, on a de facto basis, the cease-fire in the Gulf which now eludes the Security Council.

The US as part of an international force would be more neutral and have a stronger basis in international practice for actions taken to protect shipping. Conceivably, the size and cost of the US operation could be reduced more quickly.

Such a posture should also reduce the current risk of a direct confrontation between the US and Iran. Whatever the intense feeling against Iran that currently exists in the US, long-term strategic interests in the region justify our keeping the door to that country more open than closed.

The interests of the Gulf states would be advanced through the protection of all their shipping, not just those tankers temporarily reflagged.

The US attitude toward the Gulf is the product of many assumptions - some valid and some questionable. When the British pulled out of the region east of Suez in the 1960s, the US presumed a global responsibility to protect Western interests in the Gulf. Then and now US policymakers have been obsessed with the fear of a Soviet march to a warm water port and the assumption that the Soviets wish to strangle the West through seizing Middle East oil. Few in Washington are prepared to acknowledge legitimate Soviet interests in a region far closer to Moscow than Washington.

It would be tragic if this view of US responsibilities in the Gulf region prevented the US from giving serious consideration to alternatives that might come nearer to achieving at least one of its three major objectives: protection of freedom of navigation in the Gulf. Under present circumstances, the US seems mired in a situation that may, in the end, achieve none of the three.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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