Washington (Oct. 21)
Sen. Minority Leader Robert Byrd (D. W. V.), accusing the Reagan Administration of failing to develop “a clearly defined or workable policy” for the Middle East, announced today he would vote against the sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Byrd rejected the Administration’s argument that the weapons sale was needed as part of the Administration’s strategic consensus policy opposing the threat to the region from the Soviet Union or its surrogates. While acknowledging that there is a direct and indirect threat to the region from the USSR, Byrd declared, “The central issue for American policy in the Middle East is the Arab-Israel dispute, and not the Soviet threat.”
Byrd rejected the view that the U.S. would be damaged in the Arab world if Congress vetoes the arms sale. “The United States is damaged in the Arab world only because of continued irresolution of the Palestinian problem and the perceived lack of commitment on our part to address this issue,” he said.
Byrd’s announcement could seriously wreck President Reagan’s efforts to win support for the sale in the Senate where a slim majority now opposes it. The House voted by a 3 to I margin last week to reject the sale and the Senate is due to vote next week, probably Wednesday. The President had been hopeful Byrd would support the arms package and the Minority Leader acknowledged today that he had swung back and forth before making the decision.
ACTION SEEN AS TURNING POINT
After Byrd spoke, Senate Deputy Minority Leader Alan Cranston (D. Calif.) a leader of the anti-sale forces, called Byrd’s announcement a “turning point.” He said many undecided Senators may now announce their opposition to the sale.
But Sen. John Glenn (D. Ohio) said that while he agreed with Byrd’s position, the Administration could still get the sale approved if it obtained an agreement on joint U.S.-Saudi crewing of the planes. Glenn urged Reagan, who left this morning for the North South Economic Summit in Cancun, Mexico, to speak to Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia and convince him to agree to the joint crewing.
REAGAN FAILS TO WIN OVER SOLONS
Meanwhile, the President failed to win any converts yesterday in talks at the White House with six Senators. Three of the Senators — Alan Dixon (D. III.), Daniel Inouye (D. Hawaii) and Roger Jepsen (R. Iowa) — said they still intend to vote against the AWACS sale after seeing the President. Sen. John Melcher (D. Mo.) said he was still undecided. The other two Senators — Malcolm Wallop (R. Wyo.) and Jennings Randolph (D. W. V.) — had announced previously they would support the sale.
In view of Byrd’s speech today and the failure of the Administration to get a joint crewing agreement from the Saudis, it is doubtful that the letter the President plans to send the Senate giving assurances on the sale would have much effect.
A draft of the letter, circulated in the Senate yesterday has the President promising that the Saudis have agreed to “stringent security measures” to safeguard the equipment being sold them, that all information gathered by the AWACS will be shared with the U.S., that no information will be shared with a third country without the approval of both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and that the Saudis will not operate the AWACS outside Saudi Arabian borders without the consent of the U.S.
The letter does not appear to go beyond the safeguards outlined earlier by Administration spokesmen to Congress.
CITES THREE REASONS FOR OPPOSITION
In his speech today, Byrd stressed that he does not believe the $8.5 billion arms sale would endanger Israel’s military superiority. He said there were three reasons for his opposition. The first is his fear that “the highly sophisticated technology” being given the Saudis would fall into Soviet hands. He was not only concerned about the AWACS but also about the AIM 9-L Sidewinder missiles that are also being sold to the Saudis.
Secondly, Byrd said he was concerned about fueling the “ever escalating” arms race in the area. “As long as the Arab-Israeli dispute is pushed into the background, this sale does not make sense,” he said. “Rather than contributing to stability in the region, I fear it will only raise the threshold of tension. I am concerned that we are fast approaching the point where we are handing over grenades to potential adversaries in the region with the pins already pulled.”
But Byrd stressed that his main reason for opposing the arms sale was his belief that the Administration has “all but abandoned the Camp David process, leaving the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty uncertain at best.” He said the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “sends a strong signal; it is time for caution and reflection” and not that there is a need for a new arms sale.
KEY TO THE PEACE PROCESS
Byrd said that “the key to the peace process (in the Mideast) now rests on the shoulders” of Israeli Premier Menachem Begin since he is the only one of the three signers of the Camp David agreement still in office. He said he was “heartened” by the “mutual commitment” of Begin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “to carry forward with the peace process. Despite domestic concerns, Prime Minister Begin has also committed his government to complete the total withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai scheduled for next April. For this he is to be commended.”
Byrd said that “Israel will have to make concessions and take risks” to enable the new Mubarak government to continue the peace process. “Their (Israel) willingness to take such risks will be predicated upon their full confidence that the United States will stand
by them” he said. But Byrd warned that if the sale to the Saudis goes through, Begin will not have ary “maneuvering room whatsoever to make these decisions.”
While commending Begin for carrying on with the peace process, Byrd criticized the Israeli Premier for actions which, he said, “have not been helpful to the peace process.” He listed among these Israel’s air raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor last June and Begin’s endorsement of “Israeli legislation annexing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital.”
Byrd warned that “there is a growing perception that Mr. Begin is unwilling to permit any real local control over the West Bank by Arab authorities.” He said that these signs “point in the direction of an Israeli intransigence in the peace process which discourages hope of tangible progress on the difficult questions which must be resolved.”