REAL EVENTS force presidential candidates to look up from their speech texts and position papers and say where they stand. One such event is the decision to send U.S. ships into the Persian Gulf. Last week Post reporters interviewed the 14 Democratic and Republican candidates on this issue. The responses were not very reassuring.
Most of the Democrats hedged not so much prudently as self-protectively. Only Albert Gore came out strongly in favor of establishing U.S. credibility in the Gulf. Michael Dukakis would have the United States act and "preferably under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council" -- a condition that could easily spell paralysis. Jesse Jackson also calls for a Security Council cease-fire, and he and Joseph Biden suggest that the United States shouldn't act except in concert with Britain and France, ignoring the fact that Britain and France are already acting on their own. Paul Simon and Bruce Babbitt get it closer to right when they suggest this country should try to get other nations involved but act on its own interests regardless.
The Republicans tend to endorse the Reagan policy, although Alexander Haig warns that "once again" we are "on the cutting edge of a policy that could lead to a U.S. backdown and loss of credibility." But the Republicans are split on whether the president's action was related to the onset of Soviet patrolling in the Gulf. Mr. Haig, Paul Laxalt and Pat Robertson seem to think that the Soviet action made America's action necessary. Curiously, George Bush, Jack Kemp and Pete du Pont divorce American action from strategic considerations of Soviet power.
All candidates of both parties except for Gov. Dukakis say the United States should be ready to fire back when fired on or in self-defense; Bruce Babbitt, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson add that the United States shouldn't spell out the precise nature of its response. Paul Laxalt and, more hesitantly, Robert Dole suggest that West Germany and Japan should pay some of the cost of U.S. operations in the Gulf -- a petty bit of cost accounting next to the harder issue of the U.S. naval presence.
Richard Gephardt, for one, says lack of information prevents him from giving a yes or no answer. "I would want to know whether the commitment would involve us in the violence, if it would engage us as a principal in the conflict between Iraq and Iran." So would we all. But in the Oval Office decisions must be made on imperfect information and with no assurance of happy results. The Republicans, with a few wiggles, line up with their president. The Democrats, Messrs. Gore and Dukakis excepted, are not so much disagreeing as they are identifying with cautions that would be politically useful if the operation turned sour. That's understandable, but it does nothing to advance their claims on the office they seek.