President Reagan, acting in accordance with the wishes of King Hussein, decided last night to ask Congress to provide $250 million in economic aid to Jordan immediately as a signal of support for Hussein's efforts to move toward direct peace talks with Israel.
But, despite a "passionate plea" by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, the president agreed with Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other advisers that the administration should postpone plans to sell Jordan advanced arms worth up to $750 million. Republican leaders in the Senate had warned Shultz that such a move was likely to face congressional defeat at this time.
Administration sources said these decisions were made late yesterday after high-level White House strategy meetings in which Weinberger argued that Reagan should go forward with the arms sale even if it resulted in a congressional veto. The sources said that Shultz's advocacy of a go-slow approach was backed by national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane, presidential assistant Edward J. Rollins and White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan.
As a result of Weinberger's intervention, the sources said, Shultz was instructed to call Hussein and ask whether he wanted the administration to proceed with the arms sale plan now in view of the opposition on Capitol Hill. Hussein reportedly agreed that it would be better to wait and said that for now he would regard a request for economic aid as a sufficient gesture of U.S. backing.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," said a senior official about the dilemma facing the administration. "On the one hand, the president is committed to Hussein. On the other, it isn't going to do us or the king or anyone any good to go up to the Hill with an arms package and suffer a crushing defeat."
The prospect of such a defeat was underscored to Shultz on Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
The weapons in the planned arms package include advanced U.S. fighter aircraft, either the F20 or the F16; Hawk surface-to-air missiles, Stinger antiaircraft missiles and troop-carrying helicopters.
Jordan has sought such weapons for years, and the administration wants to accommodate Hussein as a means of encouraging his efforts to form a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation able to negotiate directly with Israel on a Middle East peace settlement.
However, Congress has been much more skeptical about Jordanian intentions. As of yesterday, 72 senators had signed a nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Heinz (R-Pa.), that opposes sales of advanced weapons to Jordan while it "continues to oppose the Camp David peace process and purchases arms from the Soviet Union."
The situation prompted Shultz to accept the opinion of Dole and Lugar that the administration would be better advised to defer the arms sales until it has made greater efforts to convince members of Congress that Jordan has legitimate defense needs and that Hussein is trying to find a basis for direct talks with Israel.
Sources said Tuesday night that the administration also had dropped plans to ask for the $250 million in nonmilitary aid after Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over foreign aid, balked at attaching the funds to the administration's supplemental appropriations request for this fiscal year.
However, the sources continued, in strategy meetings chaired by White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan Tuesday and yesterday, Weinberger made what was described as a "passionate plea" that the administration had a moral commitment to Hussein to go forward with the arms sales even in the face of certain congressional defeat.
According to the sources, Shultz and McFarlane, arguing from a foreign policy perspective, and Rollins and Buchanan, expressing the political point of view, replied that there was no sense in going to Congress with a measure that had no chance of success.
The sources said McFarlane proposed that Hussein be asked what he thought. After the king was consulted, the decision was made to keep the arms package on hold but to revive plans to ask for the $250 million in economic aid.