The most confusing aspect of the Persian Gulf situation is that it is impossible to tell, from what they are doing, whose side any of the players are on.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, whose wares we have undertaken to protect, won't help us by providing shore or ground facilities for our ships and planes.
The United States is officially "neutral" in the savage, seven-year Iran-Iraq war. Yet the other day, President Reagan called Iran a "barbaric nation," even though just a year ago he was shipping the barbarians large quantities of arms, and an attack on our USS Stark, which killed 37 men, was launched by Iraq.
The Iraqis insist it was "a mistake." But when a U.S. investigating team went to the Middle East, they were not allowed to interview the pilot.
Our NATO allies, who depend much more on the gulf for their oil than we do, have declined to join a united patrol effort. The president proposes to put the American flag on 11 Kuwaiti tankers. This is not lost on Americans still mourning the men killed on the Stark. No one objects to upholding the principle of freedom of navigation, which is the given reason for the dangerous course, but many suspect that we are doing it because the Russians are involved.
Crass self-interest is not at stake. We get only 6 percent of our oil supplies from the area. Members of Congress who in pre-scandal days meekly followed the commander in chief into such half-baked ventures as the dispatch of Marines to keep the peace in Lebanon -- where we promptly took sides and paid for it with the loss of 241 servicemen -- have found their voices and are screaming at the president to look before he leaps.
Among the alibis offered by NATO, some are stated, while others are merely understood. Britain, for example, is in the midst of a general election campaign. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is obviously not anxious to initiate any unsettling moves. The British have three ships in the gulf and have signaled their willingness to go to the aid of any vessel in trouble.
The French, who always solo in foreign policy, naturally said no, although they have two ships on the scene.
The West Germans plead constitutional prohibitions for hanging back. They point out that they are forbidden to send ships anywhere outside NATO waters.
The Japanese say it is simply out of the question for them. Their law forbids it. Besides, as 60 percent of their energy supplies must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, they do not wish to antagonize Iran.
There is, however, one nation willing to help.
It is, to Reagan's dismay, the Soviet Union.
The Kuwaitis begged us for months for protection. We never got back to them. Last November, upon learning that we were selling missiles to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they decided we were against them and panicked. They turned to Moscow for help, and Moscow, delighted to get a foot in the Middle East door, lent them three Soviet tankers.
The whole situation brings Reagan to the brink of facing reality. He must accept the Soviet presence in the gulf. With them there, he has what amounts to a de facto solution. On the ayatollah's hate-scale, it is a near thing whether the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. ranks higher, but even he might pause before confronting the two of them, unofficially united, in the gulf.
Accepting the Soviets anywhere is the most difficult thing in the world for Reagan. It is his adamant refusal to countenance Soviet influence that propelled him into the messy conflict in Nicaragua, another involvement that he has been unable to explain satisfactorily to his countrymen.
The Soviet presence in the gulf is an accomplished fact now. At a time when Reagan most needs to look like a world statesman, he would be, without Mikhail Gorbachev, Rambo in the Indian Ocean.
Negotiations to end the war, which he has forsworn in Nicaragua, may be his only recourse in the gulf. He would have to include the Soviets, who are Iraq's weapons suppliers, at the table. Nothing could be more repulsive to him.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) told administration representatives that Soviet gains in the Middle East are the gravest "geopolitical loss to the U.S." He also told them that the president guaranteed distrust from Congress by the massive deception practiced in the sale of arms to Iran, which Reagan has gone back to regarding as a "barbaric nation." The American people thought so all along, which is why he is in such trouble.