WASHINGTON (May. 24)
Vice President George Bush maintained to Jewish editors and publishers today that the Reagan Administration has made “no determination” as to whether to once again propose the sale of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia.
Bush, welcoming members of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) to a briefing by White House officials at the old Executive Office Building, said he was not even sure that the Saudis had formally requested the missiles.
Sen. Charles Percy (R. III.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Democratic opponent in this year’s elections, Rep. Paul Simon, both said in separate addresses to the AJPA’s 42nd annual meeting at the L’ Enfant Plaza Hotel earlier today that they do not know whether the strong opposition in Congress to the sale would be changed because of the present crisis in the Persian Gulf.
There has been some indication that the Administration would now seek to sell the Saudis 1,200 of the shoulder-fired Stingers on the argument that it would lessen any need for Americans to be militarily engaged in the defense of the Gulf and its vital oil supply lines.
EARLIER PROPOSED SALE WITHDRAWN
The Administration withdrew an earlier proposed sale to the Saudis last March, at the same time that it took back a proposal to sell 1,613 of the missiles to Jordan following King Hussein’s statment that he would not participate in Middle East peace negotiations because he considered the U.S. too onesided in favor of Israel.
At that time, Administration spokesmen acknowledged that Hussein’s remarks ended any chance of approval of the sale by Congress where opposition to it had been steadily growing.
Bush said today that the Administration at the time was “not overly upset” over Hussein’s remarks but believed that the situation has since improved. However, the Administration has withdrawn its request for Congress to approve the creation of a Jordanian strike force for deployment in the Persian Gulf in the event of an emergency.
Both Bush and Percy maintained that the AWACS reconnaissance aircraft sold to the Saudis in 1981 have been invaluable in the present crisis in the Gulf, providing intelligence and protecting the oil fields.
Percy said he could not take a position on the proposal to sell the Stingers to Saudi Arabia until his committee holds a hearing on it. But he said he was surprised by the reports today that the Administration was considering the sale.
Simon said that while he could not predict what his colleagues would do, he continues to oppose the sale of weapons to any Arab country that refuses to join the peace process. He said he does not see the present situation in the Persian Gulf as a reason for changing his basic attitude and accused the Administration of “reacting too quickly on the military side.”
TRYING TO ‘CALM THINGS DOWN’
But Bush, who has just returned from the Gulf states, said the Administration is trying to “calm things down” through diplomatic efforts with its friends and allies. He said there has been too much “hype” over the situation, much of it coming from Washington.
One of the major Congressional objections to selling Stingers to either Jordan or Saudi Arabia is that the portability of the missile makes it an ideal terrorist weapon. When the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked Percy about this, after he addressed the AJPA session, he said he constantly worried about terrorism. He noted that even anuclear device can now be carried in a suitcase.
The reports that the Administration might sell the missiles to Saudi Arabia, which were front page stories in the Washington Post and The New York Times this morning, upset the delegates attending the AJPA conference. Many noted that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger gave no hint of this when he addressed the group yesterday. Weinberger did stress the need to “maintain security assistance programs with moderate Arab governments.”
The AJPA participants took out their ire this morning on Marshall Breger, President Reagan’s special assistant for liaison with the Jewish community. Breger was pressed as to whether he knew of the decision in advance and what advice he had given. He would only reply that he knew the issue was being discussed but did not know when it would be formally announced. He said he could not publicly comment on the advice he gives the President.