The Carter administration -- and the American people, for that matter -- are right in taking a serious view of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the nature of the American response to this outrage is as important as it is that there be a response. Signals abound that the administration and the public are in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1950s.
The problem now, as it was then, is perceived to be to strengthen underdeveloped countries so that they might better resist Soviet aggression and subversion. The solution that was hit upon in the 1950s was essentially in two parts. One was a network of regional military alliances, such as SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) and the Baghdad Pact, which had the effect of spreading the umbrella of American security. The other part was massive foreign military and economic assistance.
It can be argued that his policy worked. At least none of the countries which are members of SEATO of the Baghdad Pact have succumbed to Soviet aggression or subversion -- yet. But in may respects, they are weaker now than they were then.
SEATO and the Baghdad Pact are moribund. Turkey, the recipient of billions of dollars in both military and economic aid, is lurching from one crisis to another. Iraq, of its own free will, has long since developed close ties with Moscow. Pakistan has fought two wars with India, has lost the eastern part of its territory (now Bangladesh), and suffers from a common third-world paradox -- a dictator who cannot assert his authority over ethnic jealousies and demands for autonomy.
The most grievous case, of course, is Iran where the United States made the Shah its chosen instrument of peace and stability in the Gulf. The Shah is now in exile in Panama, 50 Americans have been imprisoned for three months in their own embassy in Tehran, and Iran can be said to have a government at all only in the loosest sense of the term.
When the hostages were first seized, the Carter administration properly refused to pay blackmail in the form of returning the Shah. Now, with the Soviets in Afghanistan, the administration in effect is offering Iran blackmail in its implied promise of military and economic aid after the hostages are released. Gov. William Clements of Texas has even suggested that the hostages might become expendable to serve the larger cause of keeping the Soviet Union away from the Gulf.
What in the world makes the administration think that a program of military and economic assistance to Ayatollah Khomeini would be any more effective than it was with the Shah?
When the Eisenhower administration decided to undertake a program of military assistance to Pakistan, there were those in the Senate who warned that it was more likely to worsen relations between Pakistan and India than it was to give pause to the Soviet Union. The warning was prophetic, but one does not hear it repeated in substantially similar circumstances in 1980.
The argument for trying to put starch in mushy societies has always recognized that no amount of aid would make these countries capable of defeating Soviet aggression. The objective has been, rather, to keep them from being pushovers, to make the cost of aggression high enough to cause the Soviet Union to think twice.
As the Soviets have just demonstrated in Afghanistan, they are not deterred when the objective is important enough to them. They have been willing to commit 80,000 troops in Afghanistan, bury detente, and outrage world opinion. If they need to, they will doubtless be prepared to do more.
Aside from the new proposals to reinstitute military assistance to countries ill prepared to absorb it, this new crisis has also provoked cries to unleash the CIA, as though the CIA, even in its glory days, could have dealt with the present situation. (One of the CIA's more notable accomplishments in those days was the overthrow of the Muhammad Mossadeq government in Iran and the restoration of the Shah. That got us a quarter century of a friendly government in Tehran; but compared to what we have now, Mossadeq looks pretty good.) It is to be hoped that the CIA now is covertly supplying arms to the Afghan guerrillas. There is nothing in any of the leashes which have been put on it to prevent it from doing so.
It may be that the United States (it is hoped with help from NATO and Japan) will have to fight a war over the oil of the Middle East. Wars have been fought over lesser stakes. But let us not delude ourselves about how much help we would get from countries in the region. Let us not waste increasingly expensive resources in trying to turn countries like Pakistan and Iran into anti-Soviet bastions. One of the mistakes we made in the 1950s was to overlook almost anything in a government so long as it was anticommunist. It would be a pity if we have not learned anything from that experience.