The United States is taking "soundings" among its allies about prospects for a major economic aid package for the Middle East and is expected to push the idea at the Tokyo economic summit in two weeks, a senior White House official said yesterday.
The official said such a "Marshall Plan" for the Mideast, in the wake of the U.S. clash with Libya, might serve to "satisfy some of the more moderate elements over there" among the Arab states who "have had nothing to point to now as an antidote to the violence that is there."
The idea is being discussed in the administration as a way to dampen Arab concerns over last week's U.S. military action against Libya. It is also being viewed as one of the few options now available to the United States, given the stalemated Middle East peace process.
"We think it is a good idea if it can be pushed," the official added. "But it's certainly something that has to be shared -- we can't do it all ourselves."
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has proposed creation of a $20 billion to $30 billion development fund for the Middle East, calling it a "Marshall Plan" similar to the economic program that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II.
The senior White House official said such a proposal undoubtedly would meet resistance in Congress, however, and officials have not disclosed how big a package is likely to be suggested in Tokyo.
"There's no way we're going to get through Congress anything of that nature and at the same time still continue" delivering large amounts of aid to Israel and Egypt, the official said. "There's no way Congress is going to go for that, but if there's a joint effort, who knows?"
Also yesterday, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes praised European allies for taking steps against Libya. Taking note of the arrest of 21 Libyans in Britain and moves by other European countries to curb trade with Libya, Speakes said: "These are the kind of steps, this is the kind of cooperation that is essential if we're going to combat terrorism on an international basis." But he said more needs to be done.
In remarks touching on two of this spring's major foreign policy issues, President Reagan charged last night that Nicaragua's Sandinista government has "strong ties . . . to the international terror network."
"That picture making the rounds showing Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega standing with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and raising his fist in a gesture of solidarity is very much to the point," Reagan said in remarks prepared for delivery at a Heritage Foundation dinner.
Reagan said that the Sandinista regime has provided a "haven" to "elements of the world's most vicious terrorist groups -- West Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, the Basque ETA, the PLO and the Tupamaros . . . . " He said the Sandinistas are "trying to build a Libya on our doorstep."
Reagan's proposal for $100 million to aid the Nicaraguan rebels has been stymied in the House, and he promised to "redouble" efforts to get the funds approved.
Also yesterday, the administration expressed "deep disappointment" with Thailand, an important Asian ally, for its U.N. Security Council vote Monday in opposition to the U.S. bombing raid on Libya.
State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said the vote by "an old and trusted friend" was disappointing because it turned "logic on its head" and because the United States had asked Thailand in advance for its support "on this issue of vital importance to us."
Other department officials said the United States had conducted a "full-court press" in recent days to persuade Thailand to oppose the U.N. resolution, offered by several nonaligned nations and vetoed by the United States, Britain and France. If Thailand had opposed the resolution, it would have fallen short of the nine votes needed for passage in the Security Council, and no veto would have been necessary. Thailand's position may have been affected by the presence of up to 30,000 Thai workers in Libya, officials said. Another factor, they said, may have been Bangkok's unhappiness at U.S. plans to subsidize domestic rice growers, which could interfere with Thai rice exports.
Kalb would not say whether the United States will do more than verbally declare its displeasure with Thailand's vote. "We have made the Thai government aware of our disappointment, and beyond that I'm not going to speculate," he said.
On Capitol Hill, more than 80 House members headed by Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) wrote French President Francois Mitterrand that "we find it difficult to understand" why France refused to permit U.S. F111 bombers to fly over its territory en route to Libya last week. The lawmakers called the refusal "a blow to the efforts of free nations to present a united front against terrorism."
The members also addressed a letter of "deep appreciation" to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her "bold and courageous decision" allowing the British-based F111s to be used.
Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, who returned last weekend from meetings with the allies in Paris and Brussels, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that some in NATO "did not provide the support we would have liked to see."
He added, however, that "this is not the time for recrimination," citing signs that allied coooperation is improving. "Our strike against Libya may have helped to open a hopeful new chapter in multilateral cooperation between European states and the United States," Whitehead said.