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Arms and the Saudis: A Hard Sell for Reagan

May 18, 1986|Richard Straus | Richard Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey.

WASHINGTON — President Reagan's plan to lobby American Jewish leaders at the White House tomorrow on behalf of his embattled proposal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia shows that anything is possible in Washington. Could it be that the enormously popular President--fresh from his Tokyo summit triumph, on the way to achieving an unexpected and unprecedented tax-reform bill--was being forced to ask Jews to help him sell $350-million worth of arms to Arabs?

"It's pathetic," said one State Department Arabist. "Pretty awful," admitted a White House insider. But the leading Senate opponent of the sale, Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), put it best when he observed in an interview, "It's a sign of (the Administration's) desperation."

The desperation stems from a slowly dawning realization that it may be impossible to overcome congressional opposition to the Saudi arms deal. The White House strategy all along has been to rely on a presidential veto of a congressional resolution against the sale. But the Senate's overwhelming 73-22 rejection could prove veto-proof. (The more lopsided 356-62 House rejection prompted one State Department wag to "look longingly back on our 'victory' in the Senate.")

Part of the Administration's problem is having left the field to opponents for far too long. Slowly, Cranston gained support in the Senate while fellow California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) built even greater advantage in the House of Representatives.

The Cranston and Levine efforts were all the more impressive since the Israeli government and the major pro-Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, after pro forma denunciations, effectively opted out of the fight.

But Israeli quiescence also apparently lulled the Administration into a false sense of well-being. And with a vote possible as early as this week, the President has to hustle to play catch-up.

To begin with, he has to convince at least a half-dozen senators to change their votes. And such a flip-flop carries grave political risks. During the last major arms sale battle in 1981 over the provision of early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, then-Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa) provided the Administration's victory margin by switching at the last moment. But the issue came back to haunt him when he ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1984. His opponents cited the abrupt turnabout as evidence of Jepsen's political inconsistency. And today in Washington, said Cranston's foreign-policy aide Gerald Warburg, "the ghost of Roger Jepsen is walking the corridors."

A second serious obstacle is the President's own rhetoric about the Middle East. Although the Administration promotes Saudi Arabia as a "moderate" friend it simultaneously castigates other Arab states, notably Syria and Libya, as "radical" enemies. And since Saudi ties to both countries are easily demonstrable, terms like "moderate" and "radical" have become distinctions without a difference in the public mind.

Said one White House strategist, "When we justify arms to the Saudis we talk in symbolic terms like 'promoting our friends' or 'safeguarding our interests.' But the other side (arms-sale opponents) have better symbols like 'Saudi support for terrorism.' "

This is precisely the sort of language that congressional opponents have used to great effect. Cranston cites Saudi financial support to "Syria and Libya, which are states supporting terrorism." Levine singles out "generous Saudi financial support to the PLO and Syria."

When Administration spokesmen on background say the Saudis have "quietly" worked to block Arab League economic sanctions against the United States for the attack on Libya, Cranston responds, on the record, "Yes, very quietly," and added, "they also quietly sabotage the Camp David peace process," noting that after eight years the Saudis have yet to re-establish diplomatic ties with Egypt.

With the pro-Israeli forces on the sidelines, Israel as an issue has faded from the debate. Admited Levine, "It is not the worst sale from Israel's standpoint." Instead, aided by the terrorism issue, Congress is exhibiting a virulent strain of anti-Arab feeling in general and anti-Saudi feeling in particular. But even the Administration is not immune. Said one senior White House official, "It is the culmination of years of resentment of the Saudis. We used to beg them and they never did anything for us."

This theme is amplified by congressional critics. Levine: "There is an atrocious Saudi track record regarding U.S. interests." And Cranston: "Arms sales have gained us no leverage in the past with the Saudis. So what is the purpose?"

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