Several key Arab oil states in the Gulf have said "thanks, but no thanks" to President Carter's offer to defend the area with United States military force. The bleak picture, painted by four US experts just back from the region, comes at a time when the US is pondering intelligence reports that the Soviets may now be preparing new action against oil tanker "cooke points" such as South Yemen and Ethiopia.
These allied and US intelligence reports suggest that such action might include attempts to destabilize North Yemen as well as an eventual major offensive against Eritrean rebels by Ethiopian forces backed by Cuban troops and Russian advisers. The Soviet strategic purpose would be to capture control of the entire Red Sea coastline between Ethiopia, which is already in the Soviet camp, and Djibouti -- as well as adjacent oil tanker routes.
All these developments underline the difficulty the US and its allies face in securing their vital sea lanes against a newly aggressive Soviet stance following the Afghanistan invasion.
In addition, US administration analysts are pessimistic about the readiness of two neighboring Indian Ocean states, Somalia and Kenya, to permit American use of their naval and air facilities without paying a high political price.
Each nation is so obsessed with its quarrel with the other, according to preliminary reports froman official US survey team, that Somalia and Kenya both consider their own territorial and ethnic disputes to be far more of a threat than the Soviets are.
Each wants US help in defense against the other. The Kenyans, for example, would like the US to build military and naval bases right alongside the Somali border. (The Somalis actively claim a large chunk of what is now Kenyan territory.)
Faced with this disarray, the US is considering some form of cooperation with France's big Indian Ocean naval force. In particular, some administration analysts are pondering asking for increased use of the crucially important French naval and air base facilities at Djibouti, on the Red Sea .
Djibouti is a small independent state which asked French forces to remain as security during recent Ethiopian-Somali warfare. It is still the site of a 4, 500-man French garrison and a base for France's large Indian Ocean naval force.
At least 16,500 Cuban troops are massed in Ethiopia's Ogaden Province nearby. Eventually, U.S. intelligence analysts believe, the Soviet military advisers in Ethiopia and South Yemen, and Cuban troops serving in both countries, may undertake a new, concerted offensive against Eritrean rebels who still hold strategic highland positions along the Red Sea. Pursuit of Eritrean rebel bands into the Sudan could threaten that country, too.
US officials deny published European reports that the US seeks defense facilities in the Sudan, beyond the occasional port calls the US navy now makes at Port Sudan. But they concede that Djibouti, now quietly used from time to time by US long-range aircraft and visited by US ships, may take on key importance if US access, without political strings, is denied elsewhere.
France retains on permanent station in the Indian Ocean an aircraft carrier battle group, including up to 20 surface ships. "Our naval cooperation with the French in the Indian Ocean is already not bad," said one US defense source. "We exchange more than the time of day, and sometimes we have joint local exercises. But it might need to be much better in an emergency."
Continuing Soviet arms sales to North Yemen, and a tribal South Yemeni "fifth column" working inside North Yemen for union with the Moscow-allied government in the south, may be even more of an imminent threat at the Red Sea "choke point" than is Ethiopia, some administration analysts believe.
The four US experts just back from the Guld include Vice Adm. Marmaduke G Bayne (USN, ret.), until 1977 commander of the Navy'a Middle East Force; Michael Hudson, director of Georgetown University's Center of Contemporary Arab Studiesz; Dean Peter F. Krogh of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service; and Georgetown professor, Isham Sharabi. Between them they visited Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman.
"We found a tremendous change in thinking about security," said Admiral Bayne.
One foreign minister, Admiral Bayne added, told him that since the United States had not heeded discreet messages from the regional rulers that it must press Israel to solve the Palestine question, "The US is simply not welcome in the area because we now understand your domestic politics better, and we don't believe you any more when you say you are trying to be even-handed."
Admiral Bayne and Dr. Hudson said there was general agreement among Gulf leaders that the US strategic alliance with Israel is a much greater danger to the area than possible Soviet aggression. The only exception was Oman, where the Soviet threat is taken much more seriously.