I was initially appalled at the administrations's plans to sell five Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the face of strong opposition from the government of Israel. Because Saudi military units have participated, at least symbolically, in every Arab war with Israel, the key argument against the sale was that AWACS under Saudi control would undermine Israel's fundamental strategic doctrine: any potential Arab aggressor can be deterred only by the threat of a pre-emptive Israeli air strike to destroy the aggressor's forces first. Israel had tolerated quietly the proposed F15 package that would significantly enhance the capability of the Saudi air force to destroy Israeli tank forces, but the intelligence- gathering capability of the AWACS was the last straw. There was a mystery for the few of us in the Senate who have supported Ronald Reagan for a long time, especially during the primaries of 1976 against Gerald Ford when Henry Kissinger's support for Israel was called into question: how could the president and James Buckley, undersecretary of state for security assistance, possibly support such a deal?
In the absence of a persuasive case to the contrary, it was not surprising that a majority of both Houses indicated by letter on June 24 that they would not support the AWACS sale. More recently, however, the administration's thinking is becoming clearer, and I believe the AWACS package may be supported in the Senate if--and it is a big if--further questions can be answered in the weeks ahead.
I can tick off five reasons now why some support the sale:
First, the military dimension. Our Air Force and the new Persian Gulf Command will need all the help they can get to defend the vital oil lines of supply and the oil fields themselves. Thus, an air defense system for the Gulf is an important American miltary interest. To be a part of that air defense system, Saudi F15s and surface-to-air missiles will need to have an alert system and a means of coordination. AWACS does the same job for U.S. forces, for NATO and has operated over Japan from Okinawa.
Second (some would say first) comes the economic dimension, the hard fact that the Saudis have the largest oil reserves and are our paramount foreign source and, most important, are deliberately sustaining a higher rate of oil production than their own experts advise in the face of a worldwide oil glut, a policy with direct positive impact on the president's plans for the American economy.
Third is the diplomatic benefit in developing our relationship with the moderate Arabs who contain and reduce the influence of the hotheads in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, a useful objective. Even if the Saudis do not endorse the Camp David agreements or directly support Israel in any way, their diplomatic and financial influence aids U.S. diplomacy in the region such as in the Lebanon-Syria confrontation where Syria's reliance on Saudi funds to finance Syrian forces in Lebanon provided leverage otherwise not available to us.
Fourth, in the psychological sense, now that the AWACS sale has been publicly opposed by the Israelis, Saudi prestige in the Arab world is at stake and the royal family members who have long advocated close ties with the United States have come under scrutiny. At the same time, our own president's campaign promises for a new coherence in U.S. foreign policy have come into question. We do not need the kind of major embarrassment that a congressional veto of the sale would surely deliver to the president's international reputation.
Fifth, there seems to be emerging a possible set of AWACS safeguards that will tend to reduce Israeli security concerns, especially if combined with offsetting security assistance for Israel. These have not yet been made pub lic. They will include U.S.-Saudi sharing of all AWACS intelligence, a U.S. role in operating the systems, measures for rescue or destruction of the sensitive electronic "black boxes" in the event the aircraft might fall into hostile hands, and other limits, such as where ground radar stations are located. Put bluntly, the Israeli air force will have a better than sporting chance to shoot down AWACS if these safeguards are violated, a move we should oppose only if Americans were aboard.
These reasons to support the AWACS sale are not sufficient for me. Many senators will await Israel's reassessment of the AWACS safeguards package. Others will raise more fundamental questions about the role of Saudi Arabia in our national strategy, questions that logically apply with equal vigor to the issue of weapons sales to the China of Deng Xiao-ping. In return for military assistance, what are the Saudis (or the Chinese) really likely to do for us in the world in the long term besides supply anti-Soviet rhetoric? Are these stable regimes? Are King Fahd and Deng representative of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and China for the rest of the 1980s, or are we dealing with those whose opposition is about to triumph, as was the case in 1976 with the shah and the Gang of Four?
I, for one, am not ready to vote for the AWACS sale (or arms for China) until these questions have been satisfactorily answered.