What Price 'Victory'?
TAKE A LOOK around and witness the depths to which international affairs have sunk:
Here, courtesy of a UPI photographer, is Sen. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.), seated behind a floral arrangement resembling an AWACs plane, telephoning President Reagan to inform him of the outcome of last Wednesday's Senate vote; here is the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazira saying that Reagan belongs "in the tent of history" as one of the greatest American leaders "in recorded history"; here, courtesy of an enterprising AP reporter, is a quote from a man-on-the-street in Jidda: "Allah is my witness, the timing of the AWACs victory over Israeli lobbyists is replete with proofs the Almighty has awarded us a special gift."
Here are former Secretary of Defense John S. McNamara (thank you for that skirmish in Southeast Asia), former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger '50 (thank you for those secret bombings in Cambodia and that stable dictator in Persia) and former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown supporting the AWACs sale. As Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) pointed out in the Senate debate last week, Brown had written a letter to Congress on May 9, 1978--at the time of the debate over the sale of F-15 fighter planes--which stated that F-15s would "not be equipped with the special features that could give it additional range."
Here is Congress abdicating its responsibility as a check on presidential power, a mere seven years after Watergate. Here is the man responsible for Watergate, a man who belongs in San Quentin as much as he belongs in San Clemente, having the gall to speak out against the bad influence of the Jewish lobby. As Moynihan put it in his speech, the Senate, by approving the sale, placed the interests of the Saudi Arabian monarchy before its own interests and abrogated its previous stance reached during the F-15 debate. Should this inspire "confidence" in American foreign policy among the other nations of the world? Although changing circumstances can give rise to changing commitments, Moynihan noted, "there is a solemn obligation to consult the Senate. This was not done."
Amid all the debate over the AWACs sale, of all the numerous arguments presented one simple fact bears repeating: the $8.5 billion "special gift" from "the Almighty" constitutes the largest sale of arms "in recorded history."
America is now probably the most war-mongering nation on earth. Welcome into "the tent of history."
YET A STRONG IRONY marks this Reagan administration "triumph." Although American foreign policymakers seem intent on flaunting the country's military power, they appear intent on flouting the principles of power in international relations. It would not seem to behoove those who pride themselves on their realpolitik to prop up the Royal House of Saud. Or to give Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin further incentive to act intransigently. Or, as a matter of principle, to arrange for others to defend American interests, to trust the kindness of undemocratic regimes while exerting pressure on one of America's few genuine friends.
Moreover, the AWACs sale illustrates the lack of ideas at the root of Reagan's foreign policy. His essential Middle East policy apparently involves uniting God-fearing Moslems, Christians and Jews to repel the Godless Soviets. Such a posture betrays an ignorance of approximately 5000 years of history--"recorded" or otherwise--and signifies a misguided utopianism. Persistently advancing its spurious world view without taking into account the cultural context of Europe or the Middle East, the Reagan administration is left with an ideology littered with abstract platitudes: Liberty (as it invests faith in a repressive society); Anti-terrorism (as it flirts with the PLO); Peace (as it completes the largest arms sale ever).
So the Reagan administration has shown itself doubly weak beneath its veneer of truculent rhetoric. As Moynihan said, Israel has been consigned to the role of the nation weak administrations push around to show how tough they are. In the realm of ideas, it is interesting that the administration felt it necessary to frame the AWACs debate in terms of presidential reliability and credibility abroad. The arguments in favor of the sale were plainly implausible.
You would think that if the foreign policy establishment had learned anything from the folly in Vietnam or the disintegration in Iran, it was that might no longer makes right in the international arena. Messrs. McNamara, Kissinger and Brown, to name a few proponents of the deal, do not seem to have absorbed this. Perhaps their support of the AWACs package should have sent a message to those who were voting. The selling of AWACs represents a questionable means to a questionable end.
BUT AT LEAST domestically, AWACs spell victory. Victory, as that perceptive observer in the streets of Jidda remarked, over the Jewish lobby. Victory, as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. said on ABC's Nightline Wednesday night, over the Camp David accords. Victory, as Reagan's congressional strategists gladly acknowledge, for presidential prerogative.
A few trenchant commentators wondered about the implications of pitting American interests against Israeli interests. George Will, the Reagan administration's favorite columnist, said in an unusual act of defiance that the defeat suffered by the Jewish lobby signalled a victory for the Saudi lobby, in alignment with American corporate interests. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) noted that the fuss over the so-called undue influence of the Jewish lobby comprised the most insidious form of anti-Semitism--an implicit denial of the right to speak out. While the AWACs sale might have a couple of positive economic effects--improving the balance-of-trade deficit, for example--this newfound capacity of Arab monarchies to determine the course of U.S. foreign policy should not go unnoticed.
After all, if Reagan's advisers saw a compelling argument to fly in the face of the F-15 deal, the Saudis can surely find equally compelling reasons to violate the terms of the sale that Reagan outlined in his letter to Baker. "...Saudi Arabia has agreed not to share access to AWACs equipment, technology...with any nation other than the U.S. without the prior explicit mutual consent of both governments," stated the letter, which was designed to reassure wavering senators. There is no way for Reagan to insure that the Saudis will remain cooperative. The F-15 sale three years ago was meant to guarantee Saudi Arabian gratitude. Apparently, it was not enough. Nor apparently, does the AWACs deal suffice. Four days after the military scuffle last month in Libya, the Gulf Co-operation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, described American behavior as "active medieval piracy." The Saudi government did not disassociate itself from that ringing declaration, Moynihan pointed out in his speech. It took only a few hours after the Senate approval of the deal for the Saudi ambassador to say that his country thought it had already done enough for the Camp David peace process.
Perhaps a president should not be held responsible for foreign policy decisions made by his predecessor. Perhaps Reagan does not feel obliged to adhere to the spirit of Camp David or the quid pro quos attached to the F-15 sales. But since the strategic advantages of the AWACs sale do not spring readily to mind, the biggest benefit Reagan has gained is a strengthening of his primacy in the shaping of foreign policy. That the Senate was willing to surrender authority on such a questionable decision casts sharp doubt on American credibility abroad--not only in Israel. Reagan's brandishing of the big stick raises doubts in Europe about America's sincerity about maintaining peace, and furnishes the Soviet Union with a convenient pretext to step up intervention in the region.
THE REAGAN administration has turned the mistakes of the Carter administration in foreign policy upside down, compounding some of the most severe errors. Whereas Carter could not achieve domestic consensus for his most sensible foreign policies, Reagan cannot create sensible foreign policies to accompany his ability to forge domestic consensus.
Indeed, the AWACs sale works at cross purposes with the few discernible objectives U.S. foreign policy now possesses. Foreign policy must resemble more than floral arrangements; in the latest manifestation of American "power," only the Saudis come up smelling roses.