THE case for a multilateral peacekeeping force in the Gulf is looking stronger by the day. Since the United States stepped up its military presence there, attacks on shipping have increased rather than waned. Who is retaliating for what action in this tense situation is becoming less clear. It can be argued that the US presence, rather than making Iran cower, has strengthened the hand of Iranian radicals who now see their nation fighting not just Iraq but the US. Polls show that most Americans support last week's retaliatory attack against Iran but that most also consider a major US-Iran conflict more likely.
Understanding why the US is now in the Gulf is important in deciding what to do next. The administration's original goal was to uphold the principle of free navigation, keeping access open to the world's major source of oil. Lately, US officials have talked more of the importance of keeping US credibility with Gulf Arabs; that reason moves Washington a significant step away from its formal stance of neutrality. If free navigation is the US goal, it could be far better served by a global peacekeeping force than by continued US protection only of reflagged tankers and escort ships. Such a force would more likely deter Iranian attacks against commercial shipping and reduce the risk of direct US-Iran confrontations. All Gulf states should benefit from the expanded protection.
The Reagan administration, which opposes the multilateral approach, insists that considerable international cooperation already exists. True, ships from six other nations have forces in the Gulf, but each nation protects its own, and the belligerents do not see the efforts as a unified action. The administration's chief reservation, however, is that Soviet influence might thereby be expanded; it is the same reason the US has opposed an international conference in the Middle East. Yet the Soviets are already key players in the Gulf, whether the US likes it or not. The Soviets, keeping a much lower military profile, are also part of the Kuwaiti reflagging operation. Moscow is Iraq's chief arms supplier and has recently launched or improved ties with a number of Arab states.
A multilateral peacekeeping effort could actually reduce US-Soviet competition in the Gulf. Soviet and US units, as in past UN peacekeeping operations, would probably be excluded. Organized under UN or perhaps International Maritime Organization auspices, a multilateral fleet of armed patrol boats would protect all shipping except that of the belligerents. Such a force would be necessary anyway to monitor and inspect merchant shipping if a cease-fire or arms embargo took effect.
The ultimate hope is that the added weight of such a cooperative effort could help to bring about a de facto cease-fire. Iran may have little respect for the UN, but public opinion still counts. Tehran has not closed the door to a cease-fire and has been scrambling to repair damaged ties with Britain and France.
The US suffers at the moment from a dangerous tilt toward Iraq. The administration's desire to check Soviet power led it into the reflagging operation after the Soviets said yes to a similar request for help from Kuwait; the administration's desire to keep Soviet influence from expanding should not be allowed now to keep the US from subscribing to the many merits of a global peacekeeping force.