LANDLUBBERS among us were scarcely surprised to learn that mines had been laid to thwart the new mission of the U.S. Navy in escorting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf. The mining, however, appears to have taken the U.S. Navy aback. Not only did American warships escorting the Bridgeton fail to anticipate the mine that put a hole in it. The commander, determining that the Bridgeton could better serve as a mine sweeper for the warships than they for the Bridgeton, put the supertanker out in front to protect his ships for the rest of the voyage. One now reads that the Navy has long neglected the lowly but vital mine-sweeping function.
The affair of the mines has added to the misgivings about the reflagging-and-escort operation that were already widespread in Washington. There is not so much confidence in the policy that the American government can afford to stand exposed for this sort of execution of it. Still, the incident is not merely the stuff of an attack on the policy. It advises Washington, in an embarrassing but not crippling way, of particular contingencies that it must deal with more effectively. Can it be that the U.S. Navy is unable to cope with mines in the Gulf? Surely the Navy has the means to do it. In any event, a whole regional policy cannot rise or fall on the surprise of one incident taking place on a shakedown cruise.
It is useful to recall what the policy is supposed to be. It is an effort to show solidarity with embattled friendly and moderate Arab states in order to maintain American influence in a vital region, this at a time of great stress brought on by the Iran-Iraq war. It matters, we think, that while taking the risks of protecting Kuwaiti shipping, the American government is actively seeking to induce Kuwait's ally, Iraq, which is responsible for starting and sustaining the tanker war, to stop attacking Iranian shipping; Iranian officials have said this step would lead them to haltju attacks on the shipping of Iraq's allies. The American attempt to calm the tanker war isju in turn part of a broad war-ending initiative undertaken at the United Nations in cooperation with the Soviet Union. It seems to us a policy that has to be pursued carefully, but has to be pursued.