Commentary Magazine


The AWACS

To the Editor:

As usual, Robert W. Tucker [“Appeasement & the AWACS,” December 1981] is ominously persuasive about our Middle East policy; in this case, what the Saudi royal family wants, the administration is convinced it must get. But why the counsel of despair about the assurances President Reagan gave wavering Senators? . . . He is an honorable man and cannot fail to redeem his AWACS pledges without great political cost to himself and the country.

A twofold promise was made. One had to do with the operation of the AWACS system after delivery: the planes are required to fly only in Saudi airspace; the U.S. alone is to get the intelligence output and to have the power of veto over sharing with third parties; the U.S. is to monitor and protect the system. (Indeed, Secretary Haig told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that certain “understandings” to insure the security of the system would come into play after the “consummation” of the sale.) The other pledge was that the sale would be cancelled if “the Saudis adopt policies which are disruptive to prospects for stability in the region and are detrimental to U.S. national interests.”1

Keeping a report card on compliance may seem a gratuitous exercise. But if Senators want to be taken seriously in future encounters with executive power, they cannot escape the responsibility of maintaining a watching brief on how the AWACS story unfolds, and calling the President to account if a pattern of broken promises emerges. The case is not lost. The delivery of the AWACS package will not be “consummated” for another four years.

If it becomes clear that AWACS security is being compromised and/ or U.S. control over the protective system is being lost and/or data are being slipped to other Persian Gulf states (as the Saudis hint they will do), without American approval, can Senators do any less than blow the whistle? At another level, part of the bargain (as a Department of State spokesman told editorial writers on September 25, 1981) was to “insure the existence of an extensive logistics base and support infrastructure” in Saudi Arabia to facilitate reinforcement of American forces in time of trouble. Can Senators (or editors, for that matter) turn a blind eye to flagrant abuses of such assurances?

Trickier is what to do about the pledge to cancel the sale if the Saudis adopt policies that are disruptive to stability or detrimental to America’s national interests in the region. Of course, it is no easy task to prove deterioration in the record of a country which adheres to the Baghdad Rejection Front (sworn to torpedo the Camp David agreements), which bankrolls the PLO, and which provides refuge for Idi Amin. The administration will be inclined to put the best face on Saudi behavior to preserve its own credibility. But there are limits to plea bargaining. Certain actions go to the heart of the relationship on which the sale was justified. Thus, the demand in the communiqué of the Gulf States Cooperation Council for both superpowers to keep hands off the region and the Saudi offer of inducements to Oman to cancel the arrangement for American access to Omani facilities should, at the least, call for an explanation to the Senate and, if a pattern of such actions detrimental to American interests emerges, call, for cancellation of the sale.

Senatorial monitors will also want to keep a close watch on the stability of the Saudi regime, which figured so prominently in the AWACS debate. How stable the Saudi regime is, no one can say with certainty. The point is that at various stages of delivery a judgment will have to be made that we can continue to put our trust in the Saudi princes. As in the case of the Shah, intelligence which contradicts presupposition will be resisted by the President and his advisers. The watchers will have to make an airtight case, solid enough to overcome resistance to the bad news. Not easy. But to maintain a credible watching brief the Senate will have to develop an independent capacity to make a reliable assessment of Saudi stability. For the sake of its own power and credibility in the future, it cannot afford to do less. It matters little that, as Mr. Tucker notes, the Saudis themselves did not give the Senate any assurances. The President did. And the Senate should not give away cards which may be valuable in the endgame—starting about 1984.

N.A. Pelcovits
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Robert W. Tucker’s analysis of the Reagan administration’s motives for pushing the AWACS sale helps clear away the smoke screen behind which certain business interests have hidden their efforts to compromise the economic and military strength of the U.S. for the sake of their lucrative Arab trade.

The Arab trade has certain characteristics (aside from sheer dollar volume), glossed over by the general press, which make it especially sweet to Western businessmen. Arab governments dispose of their wealth, often in secret, without time-consuming and costly parliamentary scrutiny. Rather, a few bribes judiciously dispensed can pay handsome dividends. The Arabs are unfamiliar with the finer points of Western technology and are thus less likely to detect and complain about small flaws which can be costly to remedy. They will undoubtedly become more sophisticated as time goes on, but sales and commissions are made in the here and now. Then there is the boycott of Israel and Jewish business which limits competition.

Moreover, Arab trade concentrates wealth in certain hands in the U.S. in a way which no explicitly enacted economic program could accomplish without evoking congressional opposition. Americans pay their oil “taxes” to Arab rulers who channel the funds back to our major banks to be lent to major corporations. Our leaders blame OPEC, but claim they are powerless to affect its inflationary pricing decisions. Those leaders would be less powerless if they were less financially interested. . . .

Samuel B. Tarshish
Lakewood, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Whether the present administration was as candid as it could have been concerning its position on the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia is a matter for debate. I suspect that it did not choose to emphasize the importance of our economic ties with this Arab country because, as Robert W. Tucker correctly points out, our major concern in the region is Western access to oil. Our other commitment is to the security of Israel. Both concerns are beyond compromise. To stress economic concerns other than oil would flout our national commitment to human rights, for pecuniary objectives would then take precedence.

Mr. Tucker also appears to believe that Israel, a country besieged and isolated, has little hope of surviving without the help of the U.S. But that . . . is unfortunately the way things stand. Israel must face the reality of its peril. Western Europe faces a similar fate as it allows itself to become ever more dependent upon the Soviet Union for its energy needs. It is an avowed objective of the Soviet Union to isolate free nations. Israel, the nations of Western Europe, and even the U.S. itself all face a similar threat ultimately.

Two final points: sending American troops into Saudi Arabia or building military installations there . . . are not realistic options, nor are they warranted. To show or use force indiscriminately is a sign of weakness. We would do better to trust the Saudis and stand by with vigilance. We need to develop a friendly relationship with other nations in the region and we cannot pretend that the sentiments of the rest of the world do not exist. Also, the role of supplicant is not by any means synonymous with appeasement. At times it behooves a nation, especially a big and powful nation like the U.S., to submit in order to achieve a larger end. Naturally, it makes a great deal of difference whether or not we are judicious or naive in pursuing a policy that appears to be one of weakness and not of strength. I believe that the administration is wise in having the courage to take a risk with the Saudis. The parallel that is made with Iran is unfair. Saudi Arabia has no significant Shi’ite element, it perhaps better understands Marxist infiltration, and it has a more politically sensitive leader than the Shah. In any event, the U.S. stands by and will intervene if it becomes necessary to do so.

Adrian R. Valentino
Fort Collins, Colorado

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To the Editor:

Robert W. Tucker tells a sad, true tale. One wonders if Mr. Tucker, were he to assume public office, would keep his clarity of vision.

Are COMMENTARY and its constituents being taken for a ride? Jeane Kirkpatrick, author of classic expressions of political rationality that won her a job in the new administration, now huddles with the Iraqis and the Syrians as they craft the latest denunciation of Israel. And where is Senator Moynihan’s voice amid the fray?

Peter Hornik
Clifton Park, New York

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Robert W. Tucker writes:

I welcome N.A. Pelcovits’s proposal, though as he points out, it may not be Ronald Reagan who will have to redeem these AWACS pledges. We should also recall past pledges made by Mr. Reagan’s predecessors. It is not an inspiring record. Moreover, it was the Reagan administration that used the plea of “altered circumstances” to justify the arms package to Saudi Arabia, a plea that will undoubtedly be invoked again in the future. These caveats apart, Mr. Pelcovits’s suggestion is admirable and the Senate would do well to take it seriously.

I am not sure that I understand the intent of Adrian R. Valentino’s letter. He begins by stating that our major concerns in the Middle East—access to oil and the security of Israel—are “beyond compromise,” but then argues that Israel “must face the reality of its peril” and that the administration is to be applauded for “having the courage to take a risk with the Saudis.” Israel, it seems safe to say, does not need this advice. It is Washington that needs to face the reality of its peril in the Gulf, something it will scarcely do by taking a risk with the Saudis.

What can I say in reply to Peter Hornik? Fortunately, it seems highly unlikely that what Mr. Hornik “wonders” about will ever be put to a test.

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