The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday ignored urgent pleas from the White House and Pentagon and approved legislation banning the sale of Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Bahrain or any other Persian Gulf state for the coming year.
The 16-to-10 vote against an amendment that would have exempted Bahrain came after a special closed-door briefing by Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. There was also a strong administration appeal for support of a Stinger sale to the Arab sheikdom.
A White House official said the administration was ready "to go to the mat" to get the ban overturned when the bill reaches the Senate floor. "We're going to give it the old college try," he said.
The administration has not formally made public the proposed sale but congressional sources said it would involve selling Bahrain 60 to 70 Stingers and 14 launchers at a cost of $7 million.
Although the White House is not formally obliged to notify Congress of arms sales under $14 million, it had already promised to consult closely because of the controversy over transferring Stingers to any Arab gulf countries.
The White House, in a statement issued Wednesday night, said Bahrain had become crucial to the U.S. military buildup in the gulf and that its role in helping the United States had made it more vulnerable to Iranian threats. Bahrain needed the Stingers to protect itself and American forces stationed there, the statement said.
In addition, a Carlucci letter to Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), released by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) Monday, disclosed that U.S. ships and aircraft are now using Bahraini ports and airfields for "vital logistical and reconnaissance purposes."
The committee nonetheless turned its back on the unusual high-level administration appeals and upheld language in the 1988 foreign operations appropriation bill prohibiting the sale, lease or donation of Stingers to any of the Persian Gulf countries for the fiscal year.
The vote was extraordinary because both the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate foreign operations subcommittee, Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), opposed the ban.
It was Inouye who introduced the amendment yesterday that would have made an exception to the ban for Bahrain if the president found it in the national interest and U.S. safeguards over the use and storage of the Stingers were assured.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who introduced the bill, seemed surprised at his own success. He said later he did not intend the ban as "an anti-Bahrain effort" and would support "other things" as a show of U.S. support for the gulf sheikhdom.
In other action, the committee voted to cancel the fledgling "Midgetman" missile program and retire the World War II-era carrier Midway within five months. The Midway is playing a role in the Persian Gulf escort operations. The committee cited budgetary reasons for both moves.