Behind the Headlines Sadat’s Death Adds New Element in Debate over the Sale of Awacs
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Behind the Headlines Sadat’s Death Adds New Element in Debate over the Sale of Awacs

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The tragic death of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has thrown an added , perhaps crucial, ingredient into the debate over the Reagan Administration’s proposed $8.5 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of five AWACS surveillance planes and enhancement equipment for the 62 F-15s previously bought by the Saudis.

Before Sadat’s assassination, Congressional rejections of the arms package was almost certain. Now, while it still appears likely, it is not that certain.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution of disapproval of the sale last week by a 28-8 vote and the full House is expected to overwhelmingly endorse this action on Wednesday.

But the main battle is in the Senate as it has always been. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a week’s delay because of Sadat’s death, is expected to act Thursday to reject the sale by a slim margin. The fight will then go to the Senate floor where the vote is expected Oct. 20.


While all the well-known arguments on both sides continue to be articulated, Sadat’s death has focused the issue on two points. The Reagan Administration has been stressing that now more than ever Congress must support the President in this crucial foreign policy decision.

Opponents of the sale, however, point out that Sadat’s death proves their main argument: The instability of the Middle East, and the danger of providing highly sophisticated U.S. weapons to regimes, like that in Saudi Arabia, that may not last too much longer.

This concentration on the two point argument was seen in the House Foreign Affairs Committee debate last Wednesday. Rep. Paul Findley (R.III.) said it was “essential” for the sale to be approved in order to enable President Reagan to exert leadership in getting moderate Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, involved in the Middle East peace process. He said that while this was true before Sadat’s assassination, the removal of the Egyptian leader from the scene has given Reagan a “much heavier burden” in the peace effort.

But Rep. Stephen Solarz (D. NY) argued that “the assassination of President Sadat underscores the inherent instability of so many of the regimes in the region.” He said these regimes are not “the most suitable depository for our most sophisticated military equipment,” particularly equipment like the AWACS that have not been sold to any other country, including America’s NATO allies.


President Reagan has been pressing Senators, individually and in groups, hard for the last month to support the AWACS sale. He has continually pointed out that the President must be supported in foreign policy. Even though during the Ford and Carter Administrations he spoke throughout the country against the Panama Canal treaties and SALT II, since last Tuesday when Sadat was assassinated, Reagan and other members of the Administration have stressed that it was essential now to support the AWACS program.

Former Presidents Ford and Nixon have publicly supported the AWACS sale and former President Carter is expected to do so when he visits the White House tomorrow.

The President’s pitch has shown some success, at least since Sadat was murdered. Several Republican Senators, including two who were among the sponsors of the Senate resolution of disapproval have announced they support the sale of the arms package to Saudi Arabia. However, Capitol Hill sources said all of them were expected to eventually back the President and Sadat’s assassination has given them the needed rationale.


But some of the President’s efforts appear to be backfiring. Several of the 40 Republican Senators who met with Reagan last Wednesday bristled at his argument that by voting against the AWACS sale they would be perceived as being captives of Israel. Many in Congress note that the Administration has never understood the strong national security concerns in the Congress over the sale.

Although many in Congress have expressed concern over the danger to Israel from the entire arms package, the experience of Iran has made fear for the safety of highly-sophisticated American weaponry the major reason for the strong opposition to the sale.

This does not mean that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Jewish organizations and individuals have not been working hard against the sale. Even the Administration admits this is their right as American citizens.

The Israelis have been keeping a low profile, even before Reagan warned against foreign interference. But many point out that the Saudis and other Arabs are all over Washington lobbying for the sale and they have not been accused of foreign interference. Many Senators report they have been receiving a great deal of mail in support of the AWACS sale from executives of American business firms that do business in the Arab countries.

The Administration is putting some of its hope on a compromise being offered by Sens. Sam Nunn (D. Ga.) and John Warner (R. Va.) in which the President would certify in writing that the Saudis have agreed to the safeguards outlined by Secretary of State Alexander Haig. But these safeguards have already been rejected as inadequate by Senators like John Glenn (D. Ohio).

The debate during the next weeks will be intense and the vote may be close. The final outcome depends on which of the two arguments is accepted — the need to support the President or the threat to national security.

Immediately after Sadat’s assassination the stress on backing the President seemed to be gaining. But after the shock of Sadat’s death wears off, many believe that the threat to U.S. security will still be the one that dominates the feeling in the Senate over the arms sale.

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