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Politics vs. foreign policy

Moscow's adventure in Afghanistan is in serious trouble but not because of anything said or done in Washington. The net effect of Washington activity has, as a matter of fact, tended to take attention away from what others have done. In some cases it has smothered the work of others, and even inhibited them. But it has been brilliantly successful in domestic politics.

Moscow is in trouble in Afghanistan primarily because the Afghan people themselves dislike being pushed around by foreigners, particularly by foreigners who do not practice Islam. There is a growing question whether the Soviet forces committed to the pacification of Afghanistan are sufficient to the task.

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Moscow is in trouble also because the deed offended the entire Muslim community, because it frightened all of Afghanistan's neighbors, because it caused sudden anxiety in India, and because it startled and worried Western Europe, including even some of the communist parties of Western Europe.

It startled and worried others, even as far away as Western Europe, because it broke what had long been assumed to be an unwritten rule of current behavior. The world had accepted the idea that Moscow would use its own armed forces to protect its military and ideological forefield in Eastern Europe (the satellite countries). And the world had grown accustomed to the use of Cuban proxy forces in Africa. But it had been assumed that Moscow would not use its own forces elsewhere. The sudden use of them in Afghanistan injected a new instability into the world.

It made a crisis at once, for everyone, but most of all for those in the path of Soviet action. Who was most threatened and most injured by the deed? Pakistan, India, Iran, and Iraq. But who made the most noise? Washington. It was as though a jealous and possessive Washington had seized a crisis belonging to others and make it its own exclusive property.

Washington even set a deadline, Feb. 20, for withdrawal of Soviet troops. And that made it impossible for Moscow to do any such thing. Deadlines do not move great powers. They only reduce their range of action. The potential effectiveness of a boycott of the Olympic Games was ruined by the deadline. That explains why others began cooling off on the idea even before the deadline. Once the deadline had passed, the threat of the boycott ceased to have leverage.

So what was a general crisis involving the whole world was converted by Washington into a US vs. USSR crisis. And that forced others to think less about their own stake in the affair, and more about having to take sides between Moscow and Washington. The French, for example, spoke out strongly against the Soviet deed, and would willingly have backed an initiative taken by the Muslim countries in the path of Soviet advance. But they pull away briskly from getting involved in a Washington-Moscow confrontation.

Meanwhile back in Washington Mr. Carter is a public hero because he "stood up to the Russians," and because he has gone over to a hard-line, "anti-Soviet" posture. His handling of both the Iran and Afghan crises has been flawed. The hostages in Iran are being rescued by the patience and diplomacy of Kurt Waldheim of the United Nations in spite of Mr. Carter's original threats which complicated and delayed the rescue operation. But only a newspaper columnist can say such things.

The fascinating paradox of the whole affair is that, except for John Anderson of Illinois, the Republican presidential rivals had so committed themselves to the hard "antiSoviet" line before these crises broke that they are limited to arguing that Mr. Carter has done too little, too late. None of them except possibly Mr. Anderson could attack Mr. Carter credibly where he is most vulnerable -- for having gone too fast, too far and, by so doing, having softened world reaction to what the Soviets have done.

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In foreign policy the net result is that if the Soviets do withdraw from Afghanistan it will be because of the resistance of the Afghan people and because of the disapproval of the countries of Islam and of the third world and of Western Europe and of Asia. The Soviets may well find that the price is too high -- well over their own budget calculations. But it will not be because of Washington-initiated boycotts or embargoes or trade penalties.

In domestic politics the net result is that Mr. Carter is on the solid high ground of being so "anti-Soviet" that even some of Washington's staunchest "hawks" are worried and think he has gone too far. But the leading Republican rivals dare not say this without risking losing their membership in the "it't time to get tough with the Soviets" club.


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