From the end of the Gulf region to the other, the United States and its Middle Eastern partners are building new defenses for Western oil supplies. They are doing this, so far, largerly through new agreements on the increased American use of base facilities in the region as well as through new weapons sales and military credits to the nations involved.
At the same time, neither the main "host" nations that are granting the US access to bases nor the US itself seems to be under any illusions that bases and new weapons will offer the answer to the threats they see as overriding for the immediate future: political instability and internal subversion.
"You Americans, you always want bases," an official in Saudi Arabia told a visiting delegation of US legislators recently. "But the Soviets are sometimes better than you at getting bases in people's heads."
The point apparently has not been lost on President Carter. At a briefing for a group of congressmen Feb. 11, Mr. CArter and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were reported to have said that, for the immediate future at least, the Soviets are not likely to make any new military advances in Southwest Asia but are more likely to focus on taking advantage, through a combination of intimidation and subversion, of political instability in the region.
But the American hope obviously is that an increased US commitment to defense of the region will give the nations in question greater confidence to deal with the internal problems that may threaten them even more than Soviet tanks.
Critics charge, however, that by increasing its military might in the region, the US may only exacerbate those internal problems and provide new targets for discontent. Summing up the view of some critics, the
US-based weekly publication Africa News said in a recent issue: "Irrespective of the character of Soviet motivation . . . the US military responses, far from restoring stability in the region, may aggravate the political problems and accentuate the vulnerability of the regimes in nations such as Pakistan, Oman, and even Saudi Arabia."
"A balance has to be drawn in the US response so that it is neither overly provocative nor overly limp-wristed," said Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who returned Feb. 9 with five other congressmen from a trip to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Representative obey said the congressmen concluded, among other things, that:
* In order to reduce the risk of a war over oil resources, the US must adopt a more aggressive energy-conservation program, possibly including such measures as rationing.
* To have lasting impact on events in the Middle East, the US must strive to resolve the Palestinian problem.
* By giving arms to Pakistan, the US is attempting to assure Saudi Arabia of American commitments to defense of the region as much as anything else. A frontal attack on Pakistan by Soviet troops marching out of Afghanistan is not considered likely.
American officials are quick to argue, however, against the impression that should the Soviets choose to launch direct attacks on countries in the region, the US would be in an unfavorable position to counter them. One senior official asserted recently that the Soviets would have to take into account that the US might choose "other terrain" for part of its counterattack. This was interpreted by some reporters as a hint that in case of a Soviet military offensive in the Middle East, the US might, among other things, make a move against Cuba.
Possible US and Soviet military moves and countermoves are being contemplated against a backdrop of containing debate in the United States over the advisability of further economic sanctions against the Soviets. The Carter administration is conducting a high-level review of American export licensing policy and, pending its outcome, the US has established a moratorium on the further licensing of high-technology sales to the Soviets.
But some officials argue that it would be best for the Us to continue to sell oil and gas technology and equipment to the Soviets. They take this position in the belief that it would be best to help the Soviet Union postpone the day when it becomes an importer of oil. When that day comes, their thinking goes, the Soviets will be under great pressure to make a move toward Middle Eastern oil. According to Central Intelligence Agency estimates that have come to be accepted by a growing number of experts, the Soviets may, within as few as three years, become an "oil deficit" country.
In the meantime, congressional staff specialists say that, given the new hawkishness of Congress, administration proposals for new arms sales and credits and the increased US use of bases in Somalia, Oman, and Kenya are not likely to encounter much resistance.