Despite statements by two Cabinet members that the United States is considering an increased military presence in the Middle East, Carter administration officials stressed yesterday that such plans do not envision stationing U.S. troops or establishing U.S. bases in that turmoil-racked region.
These clarifications came after Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger said, in separate television interviews Sunday, that Washington is prepared to use its militaray power to protect the flow of oil from the Middle East.
Brown warned that the United States would "take any action that's appropriate" to safeguard oil supplies. Schlesinger said the administration is considering "the issue of a U.S. military presence" in the Persian Gulf area.
However, administration sources were quick to insist yesterday that their remarks were not intended to signal a departure from President Carter's post-Vietnam policy of not intervening militarily in the affairs of other countries.
That policy was reiterated forcefully a few days ago by Vice President Mondale, who said the administration would not use U.S. troops abroad "except under the most extreme, compelling circumstances."
Yesterday, in a further underscoring of that point, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter responded to questions about the Brown and Schlesinger statements by saying that any U.S. military moves in the Middle East will not involve the use of American troops or new bases.
Instead, State Department and Pentagon sources said, the administration is thinking more in terms of a variety of "show-the-flag" measures designed to demonstrate U.S. concern for the region's stability and to encourage friendly states there to prepare themselves better to combat aggression and internal subversion.
The problem, the sources noted, is that since 1972 the United States had followed a policy, particularly in regard to the Persian Gulf area, of deemphasizing a U.S. military presence and relying on the western-equipped forces of the Shah of Iran's pro-American government to act as a military stabilizing agent.
Now, with the shah's government toppled and Iran in turmoil that seems to be leading it away from alliance with the West, the administration is seeking new ways to promote a greater sense of security among the oil-producing gulf states and other friendly countries in the larger Middle East area.
With that in mind, Brown recently made a 10-day tour of the region to get the ideas of its leaders on what should be done. Since his return last week, the administration has been weighing various ideas -- some of which have been made public by President Carter and other senior officials.
For example, the administration has made known Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's desire to play a greater role in Mideast security, provided he can get increased U.S. arms aid. Carter said last week that Egyptian forces might properly be used in this role, and added that the administration is consulting with Congress about the possibility of beefing up U.S. military assistance to several Middle East countries.
Other ideas being explored, the sources said, include an expanded U.S. naval presence in the area and an increase in joint military exercises with friendly Middle East states such as the recent "fly-in" of a squadron of F15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia.
In terms of the naval presence, the sources said that the U.S. Mideast task force has been increased from three to seven ships. They added that the force, consisting mainly of missile destroyers and frigates, probably will be kept at this size indefinitely and may be augmented further from time to time with carriers, amphibious-landing ships and helicopter ships.
The sources said there also are plans for U.S. military vessels to make more port calls in the area. During Brown's visit, they said, requests were received for more frequent calls at the Egyptian port of Alexandria and the Israeli port of Haifa, and they said the Pentagon also is considering regular calls in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.
The idea of joint exercises, although still in a highly tentative state, was described by the sources as intending to emphasize U.S. ability to respond quickly to calls for military help from Middle East countries. In addition, the sources added, some countries like Egypt told Brown they would like a greatly increased exchange of visits by top military officers.