Although President Reagan announced on Feb. 25 that the United States was "committed to insuring the free flow of oil" from the Persian Gulf, his message was ignored by a Congress now reveling in second-guessing his Persian Gulf policy, including demands by the pro-Israel bloc that Saudi Arabia provide U.S. landing rights for air cover.
Regarded by some Republicans as the keeper of the Reagan flame in the Senate, Republican leader Robert Dole did not desert Reagan to lash him for Persian Gulf recklessness until the presumably inadvertent Iraqi missile attack. Overnight Dole switched from protector of Reagan to protector against the use of U.S. power in the Gulf without string after string attached.
With Dole in the lead, wild swings from Congress have laid down demands to ensure perfect health and safety for U.S. sailors manning Navy ships assigned to protect Kuwaiti tankers. One such demand, which the president could not accept and which further splits the United States and Saudi Arabia, is the demand for landing rights.
A White House aide remarked privately: "The attack on the Stark increased the threat to the United States in the Gulf, but it increased the threat to the president in Congress a whole lot more."
Capitol Hill micromanaging efforts were a clear signal that with the 1988 election fast approaching, Congress wants to control even delicate military operations that clearly fall within the constitutional responsibility of the president. That seems true even if the chance of their resulting in combat somewhere, sometime is remote.
The micromanagers should know that an insurance policy against combat has never existed. Yet, quiet words from the White House that fine-tuning by 535 presidents or secretaries of state can wreck any military operation are scrupulously ignored on Capitol Hill.
The demand for Saudi Arabian landing rights is completely out of line with what Adm. William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told President Reagan last Friday. Air cover to protect the sailors who will protect the tankers is "definitely" not needed at this time, he claimed.
The election-year politics in now demanding landing rights from the Saudis is the same brand that produced an anti-Saudi firestorm two weeks ago. The pro-Israel congressional bloc, always eager to embitter the United States against the Arabs, infuriated Reagan by demanding that he kill the sale of 12 F-15s to Riyadh to punish the Saudis for not chasing the Iraqi jet that attacked the Stark. The Pentagon claimed the Saudis were blameless in the incident. As for the sale of the F-15s, Reagan had not even drafted a message to Congress.
That attack on the Saudis set the stage for the new demand for landing rights as the congressional micromanagers stepped up their interference in the Persian Gulf crisis. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, usually shrewd and level-headed on delicate foreign policy concerns, said over the weekend that failure of the Saudis to provide landing rights could undermine the entire Reagan plan for protecting Kuwaiti tankers.
But instead of air cover, Adm. Crowe wants help from the Saudi AWACS early-warning aircraft, supplied by the United States. He may well get it, even though the cautious Saudis have asked nothing from the United States in the way of military protection, and still have diplomatic relations with Iran.
Two American diplomats were attacked last week in Egypt, a foremost American friend in the Arab world. That is new evidence of why even the pro-U.S. Arab states prefer to keep the American profile between low and invisible in their countries. Pro-Iranian Shiite extremists are strategically placed underground in Kuwait and other Gulf states, waiting to blacken the eyes of America.
Micromanaging President Reagan's policies from Capitol Hill is foolhardy in the big issues of arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations. But trying to dictate the minutiae of complex military decisions in a policy so delicate as guaranteeing the "free flow of oil" out of the Persian Gulf makes micromanaging from Capitol Hill an especially dangerous game.