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The risks of resuming 'containment'

In the two decades after World War II the United States found itself engaged, in its efforts to contain the expanding Soviet empire, in a variety of operations around the world which were alien to its experience, its national temper, and its constitutional processes. These included the establishment of substantial military presences in countries as distant and scattered as Morocco, Iran, and Vietnam, and the extensive conduct of covert operations intended either to buttress friendly but unstable governments or to destabilize regimes considered to be leaning to the Soviets.

Partly because these operations ran counter to the American tradition, but more because the outcome of such activities in Vietnam proved so disheartening, the 1970s registered a sharp swing away from them in US public and congressional opinion. There was widespread skepticism that these kinds of activities, which in some respects were mirror images of Soviet behavior, were either proper or profitable for the US. Congress placed a number of limits on the President's authority in these fields, and the Soviets through their Cuban mercenaries were able without much opposition to establish positions in Angola and Ethiopia which would have evoked strenuous American opposition a decade earlier.

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Now, however, as still another decade begins, we see with some astonishment that the wheel may be turning full circle, that we are about to resume the "containment" policies of an earlier era, without having determined whether they will be any more wisely conducted than in the past or will rather lead us into much the same troubles as they did before.

Of course the Soviets have no one to thank but themselves for this revival of American global response. Their expectation that they could maintain detente with the US while still fomenting and supporting "wars of national liberation" around the globe reflected their naivete about the American temper and represented an incautious surrender to the temptation to use their new outreach capabilitties simply because they had them.

The American reaction and the consequences for detente were predictable. That does not mean, however, that devices which were partially sucessful in containing Soviet expansionism in the 1950s, but led ultimately to disastrous excesses, will serve the requirements of the 1980s. The global environment has changed radically during the intervening years.

Nationalism, still the strongest political force of the 20th century, now inspires the policies of nearly a hundred states in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean which did not exist in 1945. While a very few of those closest to the Soviet Union or its Vietnamese ally feel sufficiently threatened to welcome a substantial US military presence, the vast majority are profoundly hostile to anym "colonialist" intervention in their affairs and are prepared, if the US projects conspicuous military force, to react as strongly against us as against the Soviets. The lesson of Iran, where a US covert operation quarter century ago and a subsequent prolonged US military association seemed outstandingly successful, is that success can quickly turn to disaster if it offends nationalist sensibilities and is overdone.

Even the strongest powers, to conduct a successful foreign policy, have to hew to the grain of history. A US military presence in a third-world state may be a source of strength if it is genuinely desired not only by the regime in power but by a majority of the people; it will be a source of weakness if it is perceived by either or both as a threat to their sovereignty and independence. Such an impression could be partly alleviated if, as the Pentagon is apparently now considering, our rapid deployment force becomes an interallied force under NATO direction, but such a force would still be welcome in the Persian Gulf, for instance, only if it is responding to local, not to external, initiatives.

If it would be a mistake under the changed circumstances of the 1980s to resort in a substantial way to the military and clandestine operations of the 1950s, what is the alternative, considering that the need for containment has certainly not diminished?

Fortunately we have a large number of potential allies -- precisely those scores of new nationalisms which, having recently escaped from one form of colonialism, are not about to submit willingly to another. Help from the Soviets, as from us, will be welcome but not the sort of imperial domination being imposed on Afghanistan.

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While the presence of US military forces in the background will sometimes be useful, and their intervention in emergencies occasionally necessary, more effective and sustainable instruments of containment are political support, carefully tailored to the circumstances, the supply of arms when it is requested , and, most of all, economic assistance, for it is primarily a prosperous and stable economy which creates a popular and stable regime.

Hence the most arrant folly which the US has committed in recent years, and seems about to commit even more egregiously, is the drastic reduction in its economic assistance to most countries. This failure to employ the weapon in which the US, for a number of reasons, has the greatest advantage over the Soviet Union is a form of unilateral disarmament in which it is astonishing to see the Reagan administration indulge. A dollar spent for economic development is worth ten spent for military "deployments" which in so many third-world environments are likely to do us more harm than go od.