The Reagan administration would now have us believe that an expanded U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf is necessary: (1) to ensure continued Western access to vital Gulf oil; (2) to maintain freedom of navigation in the Gulf; (3) to counter the Soviet Union's growing naval presence there; and (4) to forestall a decisive Iranian victory over Iraq in the present war. None of these arguments, however, justifies the risks inherent in the administration's proposed program to reflag Kuwaiti tankers and provide naval escort.
Access to Persian Gulf oil is an undeniably vital Western interest. That access, however, is not yet seriously challenged by the Iraq-Iran War. If it were, world oil prices would have skyrocketed, and key NATO allies who are far more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the United States would not show such an utter lack of interest in joining the administration's effort to protect tanker traffic in the gulf. Since the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980 only 1 percent of all tanker traffic in the Gulf has been attacked.
There is also no doubt that freedom of navigation in the Gulf is jeopardized by the Iraq-Iran War. Yet, it was Iraq, not Iran, which started that war and which in 1981 became the first belligerent to attack neutral shipping in the Gulf. Indeed it is Iraq, not Iran, that has posed the greatest danger to that shipping. Of the 314 tankers of varying registry attacked in the Gulf during the past seven years, 219 -- or 70 percent -- have been attacked by Iraq. And, lest we forget, it was an Iraqi fighter plane, not an Iranian one, that attacked the U.S.S. Stark, killing 37 of its crew.
In the name of freedom of navigation, however, the administration proposes to protect only the shipping of Kuwait, which is an ally of Iraq in the present war, and through whose ports pass not only oil but also much of the war material Iraq buys from abroad, including French-made Exocet missiles.
As for the growing Soviet maritime presence in the Gulf, it currently consists of some Soviet tankers hauling oil for Kuwait along with three Soviet navy minesweepers and two frigates, a presence neither formidable nor inconsistent with the very freedom of navigation the administration seeks to uphold in the Gulf.
Administration fear that such a presence could promote expanded Soviet influence in the Gulf ignores the unusually warm relations the Soviet Union enjoyed with the conservative kingdom of Kuwait long before the present crisis. It also ignores the shared interest the United States has with Moscow in preventing both an expansion of the Iraq-Iran War and a decisive Iranian victory over Iraq. The Soviet Union is Iraq's principal arms supplier, and there is every reason to believe that the Soviets are as disturbed as we are over the character and future of the present regime in Tehran, which is being supplied anti-ship missiles by China. As far as we know, the Soviet Union, unlike the United States, has never shipped thousands of antitank and surface-to-air missiles to the ayatollah.
The United States in any event is hardly in a position to determine the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War, which will be decided by political and military factors indigenous to the conflict. This country does not even recognize Iran, and has precious little leverage on Iraq.
However, even if a convincing case could be made for an expanded U.S. naval presence in the Gulf, the successful attack on the Stark showed that the ability of U.S. naval forces to provide effective protection to Kuwaiti or any other tanker traffic hinges in the final analysis on having sufficient air cover over threatened areas. Yet such cover cannot be had as long as our so-called "friends" in the Gulf refuse to allow U.S. military aircraft access to bases on their territory. This should have been a precondition to the administration's agreement to help Kuwait; instead, the administration went ahead with the deal and only subsequently sought to obtain it.
Once again, as in Lebanon, tactically vulnerable U.S. military forces are being placed in harm's way on behalf of unconvincing and inchoate foreign policy objectives in the most violent and unpredictable region of the world.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute