Experts Differ on Value of Reopening Suez Canal

Dr. Alvin J. Cottrell, director of research at the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Near East sub-committee today that reopening the Suez Canal would give the Soviet Union “a free ride” to the Persian Gulf area. Another witness testified, however, that reopening the Canal would have important advantages for the West. Dr. Cottrell said that “Soviet intentions are determined by what we do” and that with the present American ship-building programs, an increased Soviet naval presence will “occur in the absence of any countervailing U.S. naval forces.” The witness contended that the Nixon Doctrine, under which the United States grants aid instead of becoming directly involved in local conflicts, “thus far appears to have excluded the Indian Ocean in any operational sense,” and that “U.S. naval requirements in terms of ships to implement such a Doctrine are not being met by the necessary ship-building programs.” The Persian Gulf is connected to the Indian by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

Dr. Cottrell decried the “lack of interest” in U.S. political circles in preparing for the ramifications in the Persian Gulf area resulting from a Suez Canal reopening, especially in light of the forthcoming British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. The Georgetown researcher said he expected an increased Soviet naval presence east of Suez if the canal were reopened with “potentially as serious problems in the region east and south of Suez” as the U.S. now faces in the Arab-Israeli area. While not specifically opposing a canal reopening, Dr. Cottrell minimized the importance of what he considered the two most viable reasons for a reopening: to give Egyptian President Anwar Sadat a victory with which to consolidate his domestic position and to neutralize the Arab-Israeli conflict. He noted that even with such a victory, “Sadat may not be around long,” adding that the Canal was “the last card the Egyptians have left with the Soviets–they have nothing else to give them.”

The other witness before the sub-committee today was John Franklin Campbell, editor of Foreign Relations, who argued on economic grounds that “to reopen the canal to international commerce is a worthwhile step that benefits all nations.” Quoting from a study published by the American-Arab Association for Commerce and Industry that claimed the Western world loses $3.4 billion a year because of the Canal closing, Campbell added the recently negotiated price increase of Middle East oil, which he estimated at $5 billion a year, Campbell characterized as “myths” that only the Soviets stand to gain from a Canal reopening and that the waterway has lost its importance to world trade. The editor noted that the USSR use of the canal represented only 4 percent of the total cargoes in 1966, its last full year of operation. Questioned by Rep. John H. Buchanan Jr., (R., Ala.), Campbell said the U.S. would gain as much strategic naval mobility as the Soviets if the Canal were put back in use. Campbell contended that the development of supertankers that do not fit through the Canal has not made the waterway “technologically obsolescent,” explaining that “with the exception of the very largest classes of ships, most of today’s tankers could more effectively be routed through the Suez if the Canal were reopened.” The editor added that using the Canal for traffic between the Persian Gulf and Europe would free jumbo tankers too large to transit the Suez for the Persian Gulf-to-Japan and North Africa-to-Europe routes. He concluded that “the U.S. and the West have an important economic stake in getting the Suez Canal open again,” and urged “energetic Western diplomacy” toward that end.

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