Does the Carter administration know what it is doing in the Persian Gulf? That is the question that has to be asked two weeks after the president supposedly laid down a new doctrine for the area in his State of the Union address.
Carter has himself pulled back from his initial position. His chief envoy to India has talked at cross-purposes with his chief envoy to Pakistan. Both have been undermined, first, by the secretary of defense and, then, by the secretary of state.
On Jan. 23, in the State of the Union message, the president engaged the deterrent. He said: "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."
On Jan. 29, speaking to a group of editors, Carter conditioned U.S. deterrence on allied cooperation. He said: "I don't think it would be accurate for me to claim that this time or in the future we expect to have enough military strength and enough military presence there to defend the region unilaterally.
Clark Clifford, the former secretary of defense, had gone to India as the president's special emissary. He tried to reassure Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about U.S. aid to India's old foe, Pakistan, in several ways.
He said the aid to Pakistan would be "modest" and consist mainly of "symbols" of resistance. He said India would get the truly sophisticated weapons. If it came to real trouble, he added, the United States would bear the brunt. He said the Russians "must know that if part of their plan is to move toward the Persian Gulf that means war."
Pakistan heard a very different message from the president's special assistant for national security, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski persuaded the Pakistanis that a previously announced U.S. offer of $400 million in assistance was "only a beginning." He went up to the Khyber Pass and talked to refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He at least implied -- by alluding to a "march on Kabul" -- that the United States would help the Afghans take their country back from the Russians.
Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, made it clear the United States was much, much less gung-ho about resistance in the Persian Gulf. He said the "president's doctrine" depended upon "support from the people in the area" -- not just military support either, "but political support from the people in the region and their willingness to fight."
When asked whether the United States had assurances about the will to fight, the secretary made it seem that it would be improper to ask. "I think," he said, "it is appropriate to assume that countries will fight if attacked rather than say to them you have to tell us that you are going to do that." In other words, what the United States did was up to the Saudis, Iranians and Pakistanis, and if they weren't too eager that was okay with Brown.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance did the ultimate rug-pulling. In testimony to a Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, Vance explicitly repudiated the comment made by Clifford that a Soviet shot at the Persian Gulf would mean war. "The language was more dramatic than necessary," Vance told reporters. For the senators, he further questioned the commitment to deterrence. He was asked whether the administration was preparing for a general or limited war. Vance replied: "I think it is a mistake to try to define with too much precision the kind of situation. . . . I just think it draws lines that tend to confuse people on the other side."
More confusion than now exists could hardly be imagined. Indeed, seeing the administration's skill in gratuitously parading opposite views in public, the Spirit of Irony must have shrieked with insane laughter when Rosalynn Carter said her husband could not debate Sen. Edward Kennedy because it would show division.
To be sure, the confusion may simply proceed from a want of direction -- the orchestra playing without Toscanini. In which case the president could easily clear up matters by placing in the White House a person of high renown and wide connections to manage the day-to-day play of the Persian Gulf crisis.
My impression, however, is that the confusion expresses a deeper reality. I think political requirements obliged the president to make a strong stand in his State of the Union message. Believers in that position -- notably Clifford and Brzezinski -- tried to hammer it home as they could in India and Pakistan.
But the president and his closest advisers -- Vance and Brown -- have no stomach for striking a deterrent posture. They would rather play it by ear and make accommodation. So they are trying to back down from the Persian Gulf commitment, much as they have done elsewhere around the world. Which confuses everybody, especially the Russians, who are both more tempted and better placed to pursue dangerous games.