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Winter of our discontent

Affairs among the powers have now reached the point where everyone knows that the worst is over, but there is a lot of damage control, cleaning up, and reorganizing for the future to be done.

The "worst," in this case, has been a midwinter of crisis over 50 US diplomats held hostage in Iran, Soviet troops surging into Afghanistan, and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia nearing the end of his stabilizing role in Central Europe.

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The combination of these events has given the major governments of the world an anxious three months. The question has been over the extent of change the combination of the events would cause.

We can see now that change has been considerable. The old status quo ante belongs to the past. It cannot be restored. The main changes that are now discernible can be summarized as follows:

1. The United States is setting up a long-term military presence in the Arabian Sea.

2. The Soviet Union will retain a dominant influence in Afghanistan.

3. But in establishing that position, Moscow has disturbed so many other countries and peoples, including all of Islam and also India, that it will not push its own uniformed forces any farther for the time being.

4. Pakistan and Iran will become a new area of contest between Soviet and US influences.

5. The United States is opening the contest by seeking to improve its relations with both countries. A resolution of the hostage problem with Iran is in hand and is expected to be completed shortly.

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6. Western Europe has been deeply troubled. The French and Germans have given Moscow notice that detente in Western Europe could not survive another destabilizing Soviet operation.

7. Yugoslavia is protected by that Franco-German notice.

8. The Carter administration in Washington has been jolted out of its own age of innocence. It is committed to improving its relative military posture. It is likely also to try to improve its relations with its formal allies.

Altogether the above are the main elements in a new status quo. How long it will survive will depend on the extent of the US military revival and on the skill of US diplomacy.

Mr. Carter's Washington has yet to devise any long-term national strategy. It has simply reacted to the three events that have destabilized the world it inherited from the Nixon- Kissinger-Ford era. So far its reaction has been largely piecemeal and tactical. There has been negligible coordination with allies. Mr. Carter has seemed to be motivated more frequently by domestic political considerations of the day than by the technique of managing an alliance.

A standing US military presence in the Arabian Sea can be a newly stabilizing influence in the Gulf area, provided it is accompanied by effective diplomacy serving a long-term strategic purpose. If the purpose is to be the security of access for the US and its friends and allies to the oil of the area, then much must be done to improve relations with India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and the Arab states -- all of which have various grievances against the US.

And those improvements can be aided and speeded by very much better coordination of planning with the major countries of West Europe than has been the case in the recent past. Washington complains of insufficient support, but the West Europeans lay it to lack of advance coordinating, consultation, and planning.

The West Germans claim they were told Washington would not propose a withdrawal from the summer Olympic Games in Moscow, just before Washington, all by itself, announced such cancellation. There was the on and off matter of the neutron bomb, and memories linger of Soviet troops in Cuba being "unacceptable," and then found to be routine and acceptable after all.

Consistency and tenacity have not been the hallmarks of Carter foreign policy , which is why the midwinter of crisis found Washington's system of alliances in disrepair. Moscow has taken advantage adroitly of that condition. It has established a solid military position in Afghanistan from which it will be better situated to take advantage of whatever instability may develop in Pakistan and Iran.

Perhaps one lesson to be learned from the recent past is that a single person such as the Shah of Iran is probably not as good an agent for the strategic purposes of the Western alliance as an effective Western military presence. So long as the British maintained a military presence in the Gulf, that area of the world enjoyed remarkable stability.

When the British pulled out of the Gulf, the United States treated the Shah as a substitute. Instead of putting a US presence in to replace the British, it sold weapons generously to the Shah. That policy was of doubtful wisdom in the first place. The other states bordering on the Gulf were uneasy about being "protected" by the Shah of Iran. They could not be sure that his intentions were strictly benevolent.

Now Moscow has succeeded in jolting the US into doing what perhaps it should have done in the first place: improving its ties with friends and allies -- and possibly also setting up a long-term military presence with naval stations, air bases, and at least some ground forces capable of intervening quickly in a local disturbance.


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