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Saudis' cautious stance on Iraq is understandable

The people running Saudi Arabia don't have to be re-elected every four years, so they tend to take a longer view of things than a lot of politicians in Washington.

They know President Clinton will be out of office in less than three years.And they know too that unless something truly radical and unexpected happens over the next few years, they will find themselves still facing Saddam Hussein.

Considered in this light, it's no wonder that ranking members of the Saudi royal family advised the Clinton administration beforehand not to waste its time asking for permission to launch air strikes against Iraq from Saudi territory.

The way the Saudis see it, unless the United States is ready to take out Saddam once and for all, we can leave them out of this latest air strikes business.

The Saudi royals apparently are so dubious about these air strikes that they recently have stiffed Washington's top three officials: Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Clinton himself.

Albright was in Saudi Arabia early last week and got nowhere. So before Cohen went there to press the U.S. case yet again this past weekend, Clinton called up King Fahd to soften him up a bit.

Still, not only won't the Saudis allow their air bases to be used to launch combat strikes against Iraq, it's also unclear if they will allow non-combat American planes to support air strikes from their bases.

What's worse, Washington doesn't even have final permission yet to use Saudi airspace during an air campaign. Even though most U.S. officials expect this permission eventually will be granted, operations planners at the Pentagon warn that sustained, large-scale air strikes will be extremely tricky without it.

If you're launching your bombing campaign off aircraft carriers in the gulf or bases in Kuwait and Bahrain - and don't have permission to use Saudi airspace - you'll have to fly all your planes, and presumably your missiles, too, through an 80-mile-wide air corridor over Kuwait and a tiny sliver of Iraqi territory near the southern city of Basra.

Even assuming the Saudis eventually grant Washington permission to use their airspace or allow U.S. support planes to use their air bases, a lot of Americans are going to be unhappy with our chief ally in the Persian Gulf region.

Didn't we, after all, go to Saudi Arabia's defense during the gulf war seven years ago?

Saudi officials see the current situation as completely different from 1990-91.

First of all, Iraq hasn't occupied a fellow Arab country or threatened its neighbors in any way.

Second, the United States has launched a number of air campaigns against Iraq since 1991, each described at the time as substantial and credible and each eventually shown to be ineffective.

Such doubts were no doubt reinforced when Clinton held a news conference last Friday and spelled out relatively modest goals for any eventual U.S. air campaign.

The United States would not be going after Saddam Hussein, the president said. And however massive, U.S. air strikes probably wouldn't be able to destroy all of Iraq's chemical or biological weapons. The U.S. goal, Clinton explained, would be to "substantially reduce or delay" Iraq's ability to build such weapons and use them.

Implicit in this, of course, is that Iraq will inevitably get such weapons - if it doesn't have them already - no matter what Wash-ing-ton does to stop it.

Complicating matters even further, the Clinton administration doesn't have any assurances this time that Israel won't get involved in the fighting. Saudi Arabia wouldn't like to be taking part in an attack on a fellow Arab nation with Israel.

Given all these caveats - not to mention growing perceptions abroad that Clinton may be in serious political and legal trouble at home - it's easy to see why cautious diplomats might take the long view in this current crisis.

And the Saudis, if nothing else, are cautious diplomats.