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Time to Clarify Goals

October 13, 1987

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger warns that if Iran continues to interfere with neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf the United States will have no choice but to teach it a lesson. Apparently uncowed, Iran's diplomats and ayatollahs respond with their own warning that American interests--and not necessarily in the gulf alone--will suffer if a confrontation is pursued. The escalating violence in the gulf is thus matched with an escalating war of words. Ever since the U.S. Navy began protecting Kuwaiti tankers last July the gulf has become a more dangerous place. There have now been two direct clashes between U.S. and Iranian forces. It is almost inevitable that more must be expected.

The Administration at this point seems to have all but abandoned its claimed neutrality in the war between Iraq and Iran. It threatens Tehran with fearful consequences if it misbehaves, but it remains virtually silent in the face of Iraq's indiscriminate attacks on neutral shipping. In the last few weeks Iraq has greatly expanded its maritime war, sending its planes and missiles to shoot up everything from shrimp boats to supertankers. U.S. forces were supposedly sent into the gulf to defend the principle of free navigation for all non-belligerent vessels, not only those doing business with Iraq. One thing that needs explaining is why that principle is being so selectively enforced.

There are other things that cry out for explanation as the United States intrudes itself more deeply into a conflict that has no end in sight. The Administration has shown it isn't interested in volunteering answers, while Congress on its part seems curiously reluctant to force the issue. The Senate has indicated plainly enough that it's both nervous and unhappy about what is happening, but it has also demonstrated that it is torn by indecision. It's not sure whether it wants Congress to have a major policy voice--and thus a major share of responsibility--or whether it prefers to sit back and let the Administration carry the political burden of intervention.

The nation deserves better than this. The fact of the matter is that American policy in the increasingly dangerous gulf remains largely unexplained, if not undefined.

No one can really say what the goal of the military intervention is, or how long it might last. No one can give assurances that the United States isn't becoming an active co-belligerent in the conflict. Congress may be inclined not to seek a bigger voice in gulf policy. But at least it should be insisting on the answers that would illuminate what that policy is.

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