ON WEDNESDAY, Cyrus R. Vance will pause in the White House basement while a guard checks his name off one of the world's most exclusive access lists. The secretary of state will then enter the windowless Situation Room and open a secret meeting of the Carter administration's top foreign policy strategists, who are being called together to survey the wreckage of a decade of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.
The agenda for the president's Policy Review Committee meetings for June 6 and 13 will not be couched in such start terms, of course. Bureaucratically speaking, the policy makers will be gathering to consider the implications of and options for U.S. policy in the Middle East and Indian Ocean.
But the intense debate that is certain to flare at the two meetings could shape recommendations for the most significant increase in U.S. military strenght abroad since the Vietnam war ended. Vance and his aides are thought to be opposing this, but they will face a strong drive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, backed to some extent by the Defense Department and the National Security Council staff.
Behind the debate will lie six months of traumatic change in the regions that is the production heartland of OPEC. The twin pillars of a U.S. policy designed to keep enough crude oil flowing from Persian Gulf terminals to meet American needs have been pulled down with stunning speed.
Those pillars were the shah of Iran and the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian alliance that had been carefully nurtured by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Their disappearance and the two-year failure of President Carter and Congress to agree on an effective energy policy at home appear to be pushing the United States back toward an open reliance on direct military intervention as a policy instrument.
The forces that swept away the shah of Iran despite Carterhs strong support also swept away the last remnants of the Nixon Doctrine and its reliance on regional allies to protect vital U.S. interests in the post-Vietnam world. Hovering around the edges of the White House meetings this month will be a wraith-like Carter Doctrine still awaiting definition and scope.
Senior Carter advisers appear determined to find a new approach that, as one official put it, "avoids the extremes of Vietnam, where we tried to do everything ourselves, and the post-Vietnam period when we wouldn't do anything."
"We are not talking about permanent bases or formal alliances in the Persian Gulf," another official said, "but we have to be able to protect our interests in a region far more vital to us than Vietnam ever was."
The proposals to be discussed at the two high-level policy meetings this months are still wrapped in secrecy, and their ultimate form and fate are still highly uncertain. But they are known to include at this point the idea of a U.S. based "readiness" force that could be airlifted into the region on short notice. Other, less controversial ideas are:
Establishing a new military command structure for the Middle East.
Keeping a continuous naval presence in and around the Arabian Sea to provide quick response but stay far enough "over the horizon" not to be visibly associated with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.
Resistance in the region to any highly visible U.S. efforts will bolster the arguments of those who will be seeking to limit the nature of American involvement. A State Department poll of U.S. embassies in the region last March turned up unanimous opposition to permanent U.S. bases and formal alliances, and Vance will undoubtedly cite this finding as the State Department presents its case on Wednesday for political and diplomatic options to halt the erosion of the American position there.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and other oil producers will vehemently oppose a strike force earmarked to protect Persian Gulf oilfields which could be used just as easily to take over those same fields if the Saudis prove too difficult an ally. In sharp contrast to Henry A. Kissinger's public brandishing of a similar idea in the 1973 oil crisis, the Carter administration has kept discussion of an extremis option like this secret.
But strong pressures are beginning to build up that could pave the way for a return to a more actively interventionist policy, based on military presence, to guarantee U.S. access to foreign energy supplies. Key strategists in the administration sense a sharp change in the mood on Capitol Hill, and some members of Congress also say the tide that swept back U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Cambodia and Angola could now be turning the other way.
When the administration sent the aircraft carrier Constellation into the Arabian Sea in February in a show of strength, "most of the members up here were overjoyed," said a Midwestern representative. "All they have been hearing about is oil prices and supplies, and here is something being done."
Americans are already feeling the consequences of the failure of the two-pillar policy of alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia to guarantee sufficient oil imports now. President Carter implicity acknowledged this failure at his press conference Tuesday by connecting the present long lines at gasoline stations and other symptoms of shortage to the "over 200 million barrels of oil" that were not produced in Iran this winter.
"Broad brush" proposals
The events that have made an increase in U.S. military involvement around the Persian Gulf almost inevitable stretch back to the beginning of Carter administration, when the president signed an early strategy directive called PD-18 that outlined the need for a "quick response" military force for the Middle East.
Six months ago, with Shah Monhammed Reza Pahlavi tottering toward collapse and the present squeeze on global oil supplies beginning in earnest, President Carter's nation security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, revived the idea of a special Middle East force by asking the Defense Department for "broad brush" proposals to implement the presidential directive.
Brzezinski repeated that request with more urgency and precision after a border war between North and South Yemen inn February raised tensions in the Arabian peninsula and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty severely limited U.S. political and diplomatic options with Arab oil producers.
While the proposals that will be on the Situation Room table Wednesday were lurching quietly through the policy machinery, Vance and Brzezinski conducted a coded public discussion over how the United States should respond to turmoil in the Middle East, South Asia and the Horn of Africa.
Brzezinski has asserted these areas form a linked "arc of instability" that requires a more consistent, tougher U.S. response to deter any Soviet meddling. Vance has emphasized instead each country's internal problems and the limits of U.S. power in resolving problems like those posed by the Iranian revolution.
But Vance's direct involvement in both the private and public discussions on this issue has been spasmodic. His top-level Middle East experts have been tied down for nine months on the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations. Gradually, the Pentagon and Brzezinski have moved into the vacuum this has created to become the driving forces on many aspects of regional policy.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown's visit to Saudi Arabia this winter was the clarion call for this new role. Brown reportedly asked Carter for instructions that would let him tell the Saudi royal family that the United States realized it had deep interests in the region other than the peace negotiations and that the administration would take substantive action, including military steps, to protect those interests.
Shortly after Brown's visit, the administration showed a new willingness to use military power in the region to back up its new posture. During the brief border fighting between North and South Yemen, the Pentagon ordered the Constellation into the Arabian Sea with escort vessels. Although there has been no public acknowledgement of it, the White House was prepared to authorize the carrier's 85 warplanes to engage in combat if Soviet or Cuban pilots stationed in South Yemen joined the conflict.
The Yemen response is seen by some administration officials as the watershed that separates the old, more passive Carter policy from the still embryonic but more active Carter Doctrine for the Middle East.
Until late this winter "there was a continuation of the attitude formed in other administrations that we were too tied down in Vietnam to play any security role in the Gulf, and we could leave it first to the British and then to the shah," said one administration planner. "The shah's disappearance and the sudden pullback by the Saudis ended that luxury for us."
The proposals intended to change that are still being worked up and are likely to be the subject of policy compromise or indecision that could muddy them even further. Participants in the process say that the administration's track record of putting off these kinds of decisions suggests that decisive action may still be well down the road.
But the main ideas that the Carter administration's senior policy makers will be examining at this point are known to include:
Establishing a new military command for the Middle East, which is now handled through the U.S. command in Europe. The Middle East commander-in-chief would probably not have combat units under his control but would be able to draw on earmarked "assets" from other commands in time of crisis.
Forming a quick-response combat force to be airlifted into the region. Among the ideas being discussed is a 100,000-man strike force for desert fighting and oil field attacks. A more likely alternative is a trimmed-down "surge deployment" force based in the United States. Either way, increased airlift capacity is a major aim.
Maintaining continuous upgraded naval presence in the Arabian Sea and northwest Indian Ocean. This would satisfy Saudi desires for a U.S. presence "over the horizon," out of Arab sight except in an emergency. A carrier force has been in the Indian Ocean continuously since the Yemen flare-up but the Midway is now on its way to the Straits of Malacca. One of the first decisions the administration faces in its over-all review is whether to send a new carrier force back into the Arabian Sea.
Expanding port facilities and barracks at Diego Garcia, an uninhabited Indian Ocean island that the Pentagon has long wanted to convert into a substantial base.
Conducting more formal and regular joint military consultations and planning exercises. U.S. officials feel they have scored a success in the first important effort at this, the planning and command structure team headed by Maj. Gen. Ralph Lawrence that has been in Saudi Arabia for the past three months.
The team has been deeply involved in helping the Saudis reorganize their ministry of defense and establish an effective military planning unit of their own. Lawrence, who participated in the Blair House talks involving Egypt, Israel and the United States, is the Pentagon's strongest candidate to take over the Middle East command if it is created.
After initially suggesting the idea themselves, the Saudis backed away when Brown agreed in February to forming a joint U.S.-Saudi military commission. The Saudis were concerned that the commission would be used to associate them with similar bodies for "collective consultations" that Brown was proposing to Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
The proposals being prepared in response to Brzezinski's tasking order are intended by the planners as carefully calibrated steps that would project American strenght in a region where U.S. resolve has been called into question, but which would not launch American forces down a Vietnam-type slippery slope.
But the calibrations have to be made without any sure assessment of two important factors - the Soviet response to the decisions being taken in Washington and the continuing momentum of the Arab drive to undo the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which Carter has committed the United States to protecting.
In private conversations with American recently, Russian visitors have sought to convey both a determination to match any steps taken by the United States militarily in the Indian Ocean region and an awareness of the dangers that an American reaction to instability in oil supplies could present for Moscow.
"The Russians are aware that grabbing the oil would be like grabbing Europe," said one Soviet affairs specialist.
More unpredictable is the course of events in the Arab campaign against Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and the extent of the American commitment to protect Sadat and the treaty. The administration has so far sought to emphasize publicly how little the treaty will cost in U.S. taxpayer dollars and to assert that U.S. troops will not be used to police the Egyptian-Israeli treaty under any circumstances.
An effective peace treaty that costs five to ten times the $1.5 billion the administration insists is to be the U.S. contribution would be not just a bargain but a miracle. And it is conceivable that a U.S. military role is guaranteeing the treaty may be necessary to protect it. By not trying to explain clearly the implied commitments it has accepted, the administration is probably working against its own long-term interests. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Robert Barkin - The Washington Post; Map, no caption, The Washington Post