INTERVENTION has become a favorite instrument of the Reagan foreign policy. The bombing of Libya is the latest of the series. While the various cases have differed in motivation, their analysis is revealing. In general, they suffer from lack of clarity about objectives and United States interests, and failure to match means and ends. The early fiasco in Lebanon illustrated both weaknesses. The aim of creating a stable Lebanon, as a vital American interest, betrayed a total misreading of the situation and of our capacity to manage it. And our identification with Israel, despite its brutal invasion, sacrificed our influence in the Middle East.
Then came the Reagan doctrine. The administration continued the policy it had inherited from Carter for supporting the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invaders. The wider neo-conservative agenda for East-West rivalry called for a broad offensive to drive the Soviets out of areas where they had gained footholds in the previous decade, such as Angola, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia, mainly by supporting proxies and by covert means. But here again are ambiguity about purposes and disparity between objectives and means.
In Nicaragua, for example, US interests are primarily to prevent a Soviet base and to contain Sandinista subversion of neighbors. No doubt we favor a democratic order. Yet our stated objectives have varied widely and deceptively. The obvious hope is to unseat or dismantle the Sandinista regime by aiding US-organized ``contras,'' led mainly by Somoza remnants. Yet they are clearly incapable of attaining our ends. If our interests are as substantial as President Reagan says, they require a readiness (which he disavows) to use US forces.
In Angola, our methods conflict with our announced aim of getting Cuban troops out and reducing Soviet influence. By linking South African withdrawal from Namibia to Cuban withdrawal, we have given South Africa and Angola an excuse for stalling. And by backing Jonas Savimbi, who is aided by South Africa, we tarnish ourselves and ensure that Angola's rulers will keep Cuban forces for their protection and support. Getting Soviet and proxy forces out can help create conditions for eventually replacing communist rule, contrary to the neo-conservative dogma. Experience in Hungary, Czechoslavakia, and Poland shows that such regimes are as vulnerable to popular revolt as the Shah or Marcos. The revolts in Eastern Europe failed only because Soviet forces were there to reimpose successor communist regimes.
Libya is a third type of intervention. Of course, terrorism is a menace. Colonel Qaddafi supports some of it. But the bombing of Libya will have limited effect in curbing terrorism, even if Qaddafi is overthrown, killed, or inhibited. Israeli repression of Palestinians, Islamic fundamentalism, and other causes will continue to spawn recruits with bitter grievances, and other states will assist them. Only steady use of political and economic pressures, intelligence and police cooperation, and efforts to reduce or resolve sources of terrorists will contain terrorism. Bombing, with its killing of children and civilians, creates revulsion, as well as serious frictions with allies.
Anticommunism (as in the case of Savimbi or Nicaragua) is a sufficient guide to action without our bothering to analyze whether and how well the knee-jerk actions will work or serve our broader interests. And there is the itch to use force as the badge of a ``great power.'' Fortunately, the targets thus far have been too weak to respond effectively.
There are dangers. The premise of many of the zealots is that the Soviet Union is so seriously in decline that it can be pushed. That could lead to reckless action. Fortunately the President seems too cautious to do so knowingly. But his grasp of issues seems so superficial, his dependence on advisers so great, that he might stumble into unintended confrontation.
And undue priority for these issues could squander the chance for exploring stabilizing arms constraints with the USSR. Whether it is ready for such measures is an unknown, but the way to find out is by serious negotiations, based on balanced proposals. The President appears to want to achieve some form of arms constraint, at least in principle, as shown by his decision to abide by the SALT II ceilings. Yet his limited understanding of the complex issues involved is a serious obstacle, especially when some of his advisers want no agreement on any terms and are highly adept in devising roadblocks. If Secretary Gorbachev gives up on the possibility of dealing with Reagan, we can only hope that his own needs will predispose him to wait out this administration without taking decisions that would block future progress.
Robert R. Bowie has observed foreign affairs for nearly 40 years in academic and government posts.