Of Washington it can be said that nothing gets in the way of practical - that is to say political - considerations. No sooner had the votes been tallied on the Middle East arms package than debate began over a paramount Washington question: will Jews stop contributing to the Democratic Party? And, of course, the corellary: what are the consequences to jimmy Carter in 1980?
Politics, after all, is what counts.
That's admittedly a cynical view, but it grows out of a personal sense of disquiet about these heated deliberations on the Middle East. Seldom, it seems to me, has a major debate left so much uneasiness in its wake - and, in the process, raised so many doubts.
But beyond the obvious questions about the impact on Israel and the Arabs, and about American's relationship to each, another issue almost transcends this debate. The specter of Soviet imperialism became the common theme of both and foes of the arms deal. Everyone agreed on the menace. Not for years has Washington rung with such anticommunist fervor.
During the Senate debate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York cited a pamphlet produced by Saudi Arabia and distributed to Capitol Hill offices. It spelled out of a modern version of the domine theory, but this time with the dominoes in the Middle Est instead of Southeast Asia.One by one the roll of the countries was called, and one by one they were linked to the Soviet threat.
Iraq: "recipient of a major Soviet arms . ."
Oman: victim of a "communist-supplied rebellion . . ."
South Yemen: "within the last year, 500 to 2,000 Cubans have surfaced at Aden . . ."
Somalia: "had naval and military ties with the Soviets . . ."
Ethiopia: "Received massive Soviet-Cuban-Eastern European military aid . . ."
Sudan: "Had to fight off several communist coup attempts . . ."
Egypt: "received major Soviet military assistance for 20 years . . ."
Libya: "launching pad for Soviet policy . . ."
Moynihan, placing those events in what he called the context of the geopolitical situation, went on to say:
"And there has been a communist coup in Afghanistan, with powerful implications for Iran and Pakistan - themselve traditional objects of Tsarist, than Soviet, imperialism.Soviets and Cubans are much in evidence in the Horn of Africa, and in Mozambique, Angola and other places.
"One learns at the least that the Soviets are powerful and persistent and ambitious that they are prepared to commut substantial resources to their undertakings, that they are prepared to deal ruthlessly with those who stand in their way - whether they be Muslims in Afghanistan, Maroniet Catholics in Lebanon, Jews in Israel.
"And the Soviets are clearly present in the debate over these arms sales."
What was striking about Moynihan's view was the way it summed up the attitudes of nearly everyone addressing the issue. It mattered not whether the senator opposed the sale of those warplanes to the Saudis, as Moynihan did. Those favoring the deal consistently made the points.
Consider, for instance, the stand of Maryland's Charles McC, Mathis. He began by expressing "the sense of out-rage I feel that the foreign policy of the United States has been allowed to drift so aimlessly that the Senate is presented with an issue guaranteed to embarrass our national interests. The way in which the Mideast plane package has been wrapped makes it impossible to disentangle American policy from the morass of Middle East politics."
Then, in explaining why he was voting for the sale of planes, he said:
"The Soviet noose around the Middle East is tightening. This is no time for us to make mistakes. In this area the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel coincide. Both are anti-Soviet. Both actively promote our interests, as well as their own, by combatting radicalism in the region. Both are good friends of the United States. And both need our support."
Thus, the rationale.
What gives all this public saber-rattling such pertinence is that it underscores the private debates withing the Carter administration over the same issue. In this respect, a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Drew offers a fascinating - and disturbing - glimpse of conflicting high-level views on what to do about the Soviet role in Africa.
As she describes it, in February the administration began examining the growing Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. What, if anything should or could the United States do if Soviet-backed Ethiopian troops crossed the Somalia border? The president's national security affairs advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, took an aggresive position, she reports, He endorsed the idea of sending in a naval task force.
Opposing that action, again according to Drew, were Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown. They prevailed. But in the course of those deliberations Brzenzinski propounded to Drew what he described as problems facing American policymakers in the past-Vietnam period. "Now there is a generation worried by Vietnam, "he told her," with consequences of self-imposed paralysis, which is likely to be costlier in the long run."
Perhaps I'm just one of that generation wallowing in "self-imposed paralysis" flowing out of our Vietnam experience. But I find ominous overtones both in his words and in some of the tenor of the arms debate.
Early in the Kennedy administration, the president was presented with a proposal to send an American combat team of about 10,000 into Vietnam. "They want a force of American troops." Kennedy told his aide, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "They say it's necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in: the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another."
But, then that's ancient history, and the Middle East certainly isn't Vietnam. It could prove to be even more difficult and dangerous.