President Reagan's Persian Gulf policy "is going down the drain" unless he can persuade allied nations to do more to help the United States keep the waterway safe for international shipping, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) warned Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger yesterday.
"Congress is all over the map on this issue," Aspin said, "but one thing for sure everybody agrees on is that our allies ought to do more. Do not let them off the hook," he said, "or this policy is going down the drain."
In an impassioned outburst, he declared that allied cooperation is the "vortex" of the political storm swirling around the administration's plan to escort Kuwaiti tankers, flying the American flag, through the Persian Gulf with Navy warships. Aspin said that "if we end up with American boys losing their lives in the Persian Gulf because of strikes like the Stark, and you've got cars in Europe zooming down the autobahn using up the gas, that is just going to set this country off like a tinderbox."
While Aspin and other representantives sounded such warnings in the packed House committee room, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to invoke the War Powers Resolution if the administration goes ahead with its escort plan. Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the House today.
If the legislation were passed, which appears doubtful, it would establish procedures for the Reagan administration to consult with Congress on reflagging and escort actions and require congressional approval to continue the escorting for longer than 90 days.
Sponsors of the Senate resolution include Sens. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.). Pell is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hatfield and Bumpers are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the congressional arms control and foreign policy group, an informal organization.
The administration has balked at invoking the Vietnam-era war powers law, contending it does not apply to conditions in the Persian Gulf. Congress can invoke the law on its own but has never done so.
Earlier, Pell and Hatfield joined in introducing legislation to prohibit reflagging the Kuwaiti vessels. Their latest proposal is aimed at constraining the operation if the reflagging goes ahead without congressional action to block it.
Weinberger in his appearance before the House Armed Services Committee said reflagging of the 11 Kuwaiti tankers should be finished by the end of this month but would not go beyond saying the escorting would begin "very shortly" afterward. Adm. Carlisle A.H. Trost, chief of naval operations, said yesterday that the White House had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether escorts could be provided for the Kuwaiti ships but did not set a date for starting the operation. The chiefs have said that escorting would be an acceptable risk.
Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the committee and administration stalwart on most military issues, told Weinberger, "I have a growing feeling of uneasiness over our deepening involvement in the Persian Gulf."
While stressing that the administration is seeking allied help, Weinberger appeared to be making the case for going it alone if necessary, warning that the Soviet Union would fill any power vacuum the United States left in the gulf. "The fundamental issue is leadership," he said, "the leadership of the free world to resist the forces of anarchy and tyranny."
Weinberger added that France maintains "a substantial naval presence in the Indian Ocean" and sends ships into the gulf. Britain "routinely deploys there" and Japan "contributes in another way" by deploying "significant" antiaircraft and antisubmarine forces opposite Vladivostok, home of Soviet forces deploying to the Indian Ocean.
Aspin charged that with such statements Weinberger was providing loopholes for friendly governments to duck through when asked to do more to police the gulf. "You're letting them off the hook," Aspin said, at a time the administration must be "relentless and uncompromising" in demanding allied help, Aspin said.
Weinberger said Saudi Arabia had been helpful, providing fighter protection for American Airborne Warning and Control System sentry planes.