How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On a long hot day last June and then three straight days in early July, American foreign policy clicked into a new phase whose implications the nation is only beginning to explore. In rapid succession, the House of Representatives, dominated by the Democrats and until then an off-and-on check on the bent of a Republican President and Senate, took four signal votes.
The House dramatically reversed itself and voted "humanitarian" aid to the contras in Nicaragua. It initiated the first open American assistance to the non-communist resistance in Cambodia. It repealed a ten-year-old legislative ban on military aid to antigovernment guerrillas in Angola. And for the first time it publicly voted funds to sustain the resistance in Afghanistan.
The notion that the United States should sponsor putatively democratic forces striving to unseat Soviet-supported regimes had been gaining momentum for several years. These votes to aid the world’s four leading anti-communist insurgencies, however, gave the so-called Reagan Doctrine a sharp new profile and a powerful new thrust. I propose to examine how the Reagan Doctrine came to be, what it might become, and what its progress tells us about the kind of nation we are. This is an inquiry into what might be called the guns of July.
At first glance the Reagan Doctrine has a familiar look; it appears to fit easily into the United States’ 40-year quest for containment of the Soviet Union. Actually it is different. As practiced by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Carter, whose names have embellished previous "doctrines," containment is a defensive theory referring to efforts to limit the further spread of Soviet power.
The Reagan Doctrine goes over to the offensive. It upholds liberation, the goal of trying to recover communist-controlled turf for freedom. In theory, its reach is universal. In practice, the places to which the Reagan Doctrine has been applied are a particular set of Third World countries where the Marxist grip is relatively recent and therefore presumably light. This puts Ronald Reagan firmly in the older American anti-communist tradition of Woodrow Wilson, who, preaching nonintervention, put American troops ashore at Archangel and Vladivostok. That effort to strangle the Russian Revolution conferred a Wilsonian pedigree on subsequent attempts to undo Marxist regimes.
These attempts include the operations associated with the Inchon landing in Korea; the CIA’s part, during the Truman Administration, in putting emigrés ashore in Albania; John Foster Dulles’ public toying with the idea of liberation in Eastern Europe; and John Kennedy’s landing of Cuban emigrés at the Bay of Pigs. All of these operations were disasters. Their implicit residual significance, to conservatives, is less as a model for emulation than as a caution against the halfhearted pursuit of such undertakings.
It was not, however, a sense of history that produced the Reagan Doctrine. It was an event in history, the appearance during the 1970s of a third wave of newly declared or alleged Marxist states, following the earlier waves launched by the two world wars. South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to communism and traditionally Western positions were lost in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Nicaragua, Grenada, Suriname and Afghanistan. On the American left, these developments tended at first to be viewed as coincidental and discrete and as not especially damaging to American interests, Afghanistan excepted. On the right, however, they were immediately received as the integrated and consequential reflection of a new global imbalance brought on by a default of American will—the "Vietnam syndrome"—and by the Kremlin’s sure-handed orchestration of Soviet troops, arms and surrogates.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, these currents tended to merge. A Soviet juggernaut, it seemed even to people of different persuasions, was truly on the move. Moscow appeared to be in a stage of territorial and political expansion the likes of which had not been seen since the end of World War II, and then only on a much more geographically restricted and strategically modest basis. The danger ever more widely perceived was that even if Moscow had not inspired and directed these convulsions, the affected countries would tend to gravitate toward Moscow and to create major new difficulties for the United States and its friends.
It was precisely here that the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968 assumed a new life in the American mind. Strictly speaking, the original Soviet doctrine of national liberation—any state is fair game for the revolution—was and is the more fundamental and the more menacing to the West. Nonetheless, the Brezhnev version of this doctrine—once in the Soviet bloc, always in—came to be seen as particularly insidious and objectionable for its felt implication that the West had to sit by with arms folded as the Soviet Union gobbled up one new place after another in its own good time. No longer was the Brezhnev Doctrine taken just as an outrageous alibi framed to justify an imperial act, the subordination of Czechoslovakia. If, as it seemed, it was being invoked by the Kremlin to put its new acquisitions of the 1970s beyond Western challenge, then it somehow had to be confronted head on. Otherwise the West would have ratified by its inaction a Soviet doctrine implying the West’s unilateral political disarmament. That anti-communist insurgencies were actually stirring in a number of these new acquisitions provided a nice opening to turn this perspective into policy.
Still, the Reagan Administration’s inclinations on this score needed to be jolted into life. The opportunity came suddenly in the fall of 1983 in Grenada. Events presented the President with an easy opportunity to use American troops to topple a regime that looked thuggish and plausibly communist. Later, after the United States managed to inspect the files that overthrown Grenadian leader Maurice Bishop left behind, Grenada came to look like a textbook example of a helpless state on the way to becoming a Soviet tool.
At that point there was no American doctrine of supporting anti-communist insurgencies, and there was no anti-communist insurgency on Grenada for the United States to support. Nevertheless, the President counted substantial gains from his invasion. He had used force under an anti-communist banner and won plaudits in the political and diplomatic arenas, no small matter for an Administration eager to show that it was no Gulliver tied down by liberal Lilliputians.
More importantly, for the first time, communism—if you apply the label to the elements deposed in Grenada—had been shown to be reversible. This was a positively sparkling tonic for an ideologically minded Administration that had ached at the thought that communist regimes were considered locked in by history while non-communist regimes were regarded as open to capture. It also gave the Reagan team new courage to deal with its considerable frustrations in Nicaragua, where the insurgency that the Administration had organized late in 1981 was on the verge of wilting for lack of congressional support.
In his first term, Ronald Reagan had worked to restore to the United States a perceived strategic superiority. Public concern and the pressures of reelection had guided him back toward a posture of guarded readiness for accommodation with the Soviet Union in nuclear matters. In regional disputes, however, no similar willingness to compromise was evident. One can speculate that Reagan’s relaxation of relations with Moscow on arms control had stirred a compensating hunger for ideological involvement. If it was necessary to pursue something suspiciously like détente in one sector, then it was necessary to keep the conservative faith conspicuously in another.
Yet in the key arena, Nicaragua, the prospect was bleak. The rationale Reagan was then stressing—that Nicaragua’s backing of guerrillas in El Salvador justified his own backing of a contra interdiction force—seemed thin and evasive in view of the contras’ evident determination to bring down the Sandinista regime. A more convincing argument was needed. In the grand tradition of American anti-communist pronouncements, Reagan moved to the high ground of moral principle. His remarks in his State of the Union address of February 6, 1985, remain the basic text of what others then began describing as the Reagan Doctrine (Reagan himself has never used this term: he apparently has wanted to preserve some flexibility). Said the President:
Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few, it is the universal right of all God’s children. Look to where peace and prosperity flourish today. It is in homes that freedom built. Victories against poverty are the greatest and most secure where people live by laws that ensure free press, free speech and freedom to worship, vote and create wealth. Our mission is to nourish and defend freedom and democracy and to communicate these ideals everywhere we can. We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.
Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick later noted dryly that the clarity of President Reagan’s policy has been obscured by our practice of providing assistance to freedom fighters covertly, since covert policies are not explicitly defended by spokesmen of the government. But this is less than half of it. The President, after all, has not shrunk from defending his policy boldly in public forums. His policy is unclear because he has not clarified it.
His original rationale—that freedom is a universal right—is open and unlimiting; if freedom is a universal right, it must be wrong not to try to seat it everywhere, even in the Soviet homeland, no matter what the cost. The actual implementation of the Reagan Doctrine, however, has been confined to a relatively few places: one (Afghanistan) is on the Soviet border, but all the others are quite distant from the Soviet Union; the costs have been relatively modest. This gap between the doctrine’s universal aspirations and its particular applications is a source of frustration to its more ardent advocates; to others it is cause for relief.
To the Administration, great strategic fruits are to be derived from a conservative foreign policy that starts with deterrence, proceeds through political, economic and ideological competition, and arrives at support for insurgents only as a last resort in the absence of openness to evolutionary change. National interest is regularly cited on behalf of the guerrilla movements the Administration assists.
To Secretary of State George Shultz, however, as to other official stalwarts, the stronger appeal lies in the "moral principles [that] compel us to support those struggling against the imposition of communist tyranny." A freedom fighter’s use of force to resist tyranny is moral, he says, and is to be distinguished from a terrorist’s use of force, which by Shultz’ definition is intended to impose tyranny. He has broached the idea that aid to anti-communist insurgencies is a proper tit-for-tat rejoinder to Moscow’s aid to Marxist insurgencies—a position implying a possible deal between the two great powers to swear off supporting insurgencies. His characteristic approach, however, has been to underline the moral, hence theoretically uncompromisable, aspect of the policy, even in Afghanistan, a country on the Soviet border that surely qualifies as strategic from a Soviet point of view.
Secretary Shultz and CIA Director William Casey say they have spotted a worldwide trend: an increase in the willingness of people to struggle against communist domination. They treat this phenomenon as one of spontaneous generation and do not calculate the contribution that American encouragement has made to inducing people to take up arms. Nor do they calculate the extent to which the United States accumulates a moral debt by its encouragement. Casey finds a moral argument for U.S. encouragement of anti-communist insurgents in what he characterizes as the illegitimate status of the Marxist-Leninist governments in question; these governments are illegitimate either because they are imposed (as in Afghanistan) or maintained (as in Nicaragua) by an outside power. He does not explain why the United States does not support attacks on unrepresentative governments friendly to the West, nor why the United States itself has kept afloat such unrepresentative governments. Nor does he explore the morality of the possibility that the United States, by its sponsorship of guerrilla war against a leftist Third World government, may in effect contribute to that government’s decision to seek Soviet maintenance.
Shultz takes a further step. He lumps together communist aggression and tyranny, although the former refers in his usage to a regime installed by the Red Army and the latter to a regime seated mainly by its own efforts—quite a difference. He suggests that assistance to the foes of either one can be a lawful form of collective self-defense, which in turn seems to mean that, in the name of fighting communism, almost anything is allowed.
This is not to say all restraint has been cast to the winds. The Reagan Doctrine was not applied to Angola until early in 1986, a delay that pained, among others, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Once liberated from government service, she shed interesting light on internal debate in the Administration she formerly served, complaining that the State Department’s Africa bureau, in pursuing negotiations with the Angolan Marxist regime, had kept the Angolan rebels at arm’s length and had actually bestowed a big Export-Import Bank loan upon the Luanda government.
Conservatives invoking the Reagan Doctrine against a reluctant Administration are still trying to start up aid to the anti-communist opposition in Mozambique. There, however, Reagan is making a calculated effort to show Marxist President Samora Machel that Washington can supply, more effectively than can Moscow, the two basic commodities Machel needs: protection from South Africa and economic progress. Mozambique remains the best example of a situation in which the Administration, having a good guerrilla card to play, has not played it, choosing instead to try to wean the local Marxists over to the American side.
Ethiopia is a bit different. Some have urged the Administration to take up the cause of the Eritrean and other guerrillas fighting the Marxist government there. So far the Administration’s answer has been no, on grounds that the rebels are not only secessionists but Marxists themselves. Meanwhile, through its immense food program Washington sustains the otherwise hostile government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam and trolls for the favor of the Ethiopian people. Here, again, is evidence that pragmatism is not dead in the Reagan Administration.
In fact, the Administration makes a pragmatic case for the Reagan Doctrine: it is containment-plus, on the cheap. The annual dollar amount of each current operation is in the several tens, or at most the several hundreds, of millions: not a big budget item even at the higher estimate and certainly far cheaper than the use of comparable American forces would be.
Reagan Doctrine partisans acknowledge the risks incurred by local friendly countries (Pakistan, Honduras, perhaps Thailand, conceivably Zaire) that provide or may provide sanctuary for American-financed guerrillas. To minimize these risks the United States advertises its role as the sanctuary’s guarantor and—though this somewhat undercuts its military purpose—keeps the level of military conflict within bounds. The further risks that might lead to the introduction of American forces arise only in Nicaragua, where a surge by the Sandinistas, a collapse of the contras or some kind of accident or provocation might necessitate direct U.S. intervention. Though the Reagan Doctrine is designed to obviate the need for the use of American forces, the moral commitment from which the doctrine springs would not expire simply because the guerrilla proxies had foundered. Besides, there is a subtle but unmistakable sense in which Washington hopes that the Sandinistas will disbelieve its insistence that it will not send in American soldiers; so disbelieving, the Sandinistas will be the readier to relent. For this theory, it should be added, there is not yet any proof.
Republicans and conservatives were real or likely converts to the Reagan Doctrine from the time of its inception. The idea of supporting guerrillas was, after all, central to what the Heritage Foundation has described as the Reagan agenda: a new economic theory, a return to traditional values, the strengthening of national security and a rebirth of national optimism. The idea was put into practical effect during the President’s first term (although it was actually under Jimmy Carter’s Administration that the CIA began working in Afghanistan), was given a fresh mandate by his reelection, and was endowed with a broad conceptual thrust as his second term opened.
It remained only for holdout Democrats and liberals to climb aboard. Not only was such a turn critical to the evolution of Administration foreign policy, given the majority that the Democratic Party retained in the House (253 to 182) even after the Reagan presidential landslide and the G.O.P. Senate victory of 1984; it was also critical to the process of party politics, given the distance and nature of the terrain many Democrats felt the party had to traverse to bring their policy closer into line with public opinion.
Since the summer of 1985, the relatively few liberals who had held their ground on these questions have derided the shift in the stance of most Democrats, laying it to a mood of frustration and political panic created by passing events in the spring of that year. Terrorists had seized a Trans World Airlines flight in Athens, killed a passenger and then escaped with impunity. The Walker family spy ring had been exposed, and marines had been gunned down in El Salvador. The spirit of the anti-communist movie crusader Rambo had been everywhere taken as a sign of the times. Commemorations of the 40th anniversary of Allied World War II victories over Germany and Japan were popularizing the idea of the legitimate and successful use of force to vanquish tyranny. Little wonder that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s (eighth) trip to Moscow, following hard on the heels of an April House of Representatives vote to withhold aid from the contras, sent Congress into a spasm of embarrassment and rage.
Yet plainly, deeper forces were at work. The conservative brief had sunk in: strategic factors matter, liberty matters, the world is hostile, the United States must fight back. And liberals are politicians too. "We have created the impression that we are too divided to govern," confessed Representative Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), a leading party voice, in mid-1985. "If Democrats are going to regain the confidence of the American people and recapture the White House, we will have to develop a new and more toughminded consensus on foreign policy."
Already the party was moving, if fitfully, toward national security positions long espoused by southern and Jackson Democrats. The latter, identifying with the late Senator Henry M. Jackson and the Committee for a Democratic Majority, had furnished Jeane Kirkpatrick and other anti-communist notables to the Reagan foreign policy team (and in some cases to the Republican Party). The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had pushed Carter Democrats rightward on the core issue of the basic perception of the Soviet Union and on defense spending. The first Reagan term saw important Democratic Party figures taking more security-minded positions in arms and arms control, for example on the MX. As the second Reagan term opened, the intervention debate spurted and Democrats were inevitably drawn in. The House floor debates on aid for Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan provided the absorbing spectacle of minds being changed, and of national policy actually being made, before the public’s eyes.
A year earlier a narrowly divided Congress, resisting the President’s effort to build a bipartisan consensus around the Kissinger Commission’s Central America findings, had cut off the program for the Nicaraguan contras that the CIA had begun in 1981. Private and foreign funds had sustained some 10,000 or more of the contras; on June 12, 1985, the issue was again joined. The House was openly asked to offer direct aid ($27 million in "humanitarian" assistance) to a military force bent not simply on interdicting Nicaraguan supplies to Salvadoran guerrillas but, by the contras’ own admission, on overthrowing the Sandinistas. Administration supporters stated that aid would break the military stalemate, put the democratic political resistance back into play, and prevent a direct American intervention. Opponents claimed aid would deepen the failure of an already bankrupt policy, isolate the United States in the region, align Americans with the wrong Nicaraguans, and tempt a wider war and perhaps an eventual American part in it.
In a series of votes, 50 to 80 Democrats ended up voting for the aid, although in a package that modified the original Administration proposal with the aim of encouraging negotiations. It was some distance from a full Reagan victory, but the most hesitant element of the American political system had at least decided to vote funds to keep an armed guerrilla force in the field. By February 1986 Reagan had been emboldened to come back to Congress with a request for four times as much in outright military and economic aid.
The subsequent House debate on Cambodia that opened on July 9, 1985, touched the very quick of the Vietnam syndrome—shrinkage from involvement—though only symbolically, since a mere $5 million was at issue and there was not the remotest chance that American troops might be drawn in. Not only had Cambodia, like Vietnam, gone communist. It had been lost, in one perspective, by the votes of mostly Democratic liberals in the 1970s. Now one of them, Solarz of New York, argued that the issue was help to repel a foreign invasion. He led an appeal for military aid, to be given not to the Khmer Rouge but to their lesser non-communist partners in the fight against the Vietnamese occupiers of Cambodia. He was acting to demonstrate, not least to American voters, that the Vietnam syndrome no longer held American policy in check.
Completing the sense of topsy-turviness on the House floor, a Republican, Jim Leach of Iowa, made the argument—once typically Democratic—that aid in the small amount contemplated could not possibly accomplish the large mission to which it was assigned, and that it would only stiffen occupying Vietnam, invest American prestige unwisely and put a distracting American stamp on an Asian cause. Do not rush to "assuage our national guilt over our past involvement in Vietnam" just to show we are not "paralyzed," said Leach, picking up the theme on everyone’s mind.
The Administration said military aid was "not necessary or appropriate now." Eminently pragmatic in this instance, Reagan officials saw no advantage in poking publicly into a hornet’s nest where the CIA was already quietly providing nominal nonmilitary aid to the non-communist rebels, and where the dominant Pol Pot group seemed bound to benefit most from any further aid to the insurgent cause. No committee hearings had been held. There had been nothing faintly resembling a national debate on Cambodia. In a few hours on the floor, however, Solarz prevailed by the margin of 288 to 122, with 132 of 236 Democrats voting in favor of military aid. At once, Secretary Shultz said the Administration would avail itself of the amendment’s option to make the aid humanitarian, not military.
The next day, July 10, 1985, the House turned to the Clark Amendment, the country-specific ban—named for former Senator Dick Clark (D-Iowa)—on aid to Angolan insurgents enacted by Congress nine years before in a surge of anti-executive branch, anti-CIA, anti-Vietnam War feeling.
In the intervening years, guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi of UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) had impressed many legislators with his charisma, his professions of democracy, his staying power and his promise to topple or at least bloody the Cuban-supported MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) government in Luanda. In earlier years the Reagan Administration, while following its predecessors in favoring a repeal of the Clark Amendment, had not lobbied hard for it. Repeal, with its implied corollary of support for Savimbi, had seemed inconsistent with the part of the Reagan "constructive engagement" policy aimed at negotiating matching withdrawals of South African forces from Namibia and Cuban troops from Angola—especially since South Africa was Savimbi’s chief supporter.
By the summer of 1985, however, constructive engagement had lost much of its momentum in the region and much of its support in Washington. It was left to a few Democratic liberals like Representative Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) to defend an embattled Republican policy on Angola. Since the House was building up a head of steam behind sanctions against South Africa at the same time it was voting to repeal the Clark Amendment, it seemed an odd moment for the United States to step into a pro-Savimbi policy parallel to South Africa’s. But the House, caught up by the scent of an easy anti-communist vote, casually opened the way to reintervening in Angola’s civil war. Sixty Democrats joined the majority in the 236 to 185 vote for repeal. By early 1986, support to Savimbi had been approved.
On July 11, 1985, the House arrived for the first time at open consideration of a congressional request for funds for the Afghan resistance. A covert program had been begun soon after the Soviet invasion of 1979: brushing off Moscow’s claim that it was merely tending to an intolerable eruption on its border, Jimmy Carter had accepted the geopolitical explanation that the Kremlin was moving in on the Persian Gulf. News reports subsequently told of what became an aid flow of several hundred millions of dollars a year. A congressional resolution sponsored by then Senator Paul Tsongas, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, endorsing "material aid to help [the Afghan people] fight effectively for their freedom," had passed unanimously in 1984. The State Department, fearing further exposure of Pakistan’s role as sanctuary, persuaded Congress to change the operative phrase to "effective support." By July, admiration for the valor and anti-communism of the guerrillas had carried to the House floor an amendment earmarking $15 million for Afghan humanitarian relief. A brief colloquy avoided all issues of tactics and strategy and produced an uncontested voice vote for the measure. Congress had kept faith with the mujahedeen.
What is the record in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and the other places where the Reagan Doctrine is being tested? The President’s defenders say he is performing a moral duty and fulfilling a strategic purpose and doing so prudently, without undue cost or risk to the United States. But this is too simple. The President, without conveying a clear sense of purpose, has pointed the country more deeply into open-ended conflicts with major geopolitical implications on three continents. In each of these places he states an intent to produce a negotiation leading to reconciliation, democracy and civil peace. No such result has yet come about, and a pack of nagging questions snaps about his heels.
There is the matter of resources. The costs so far are modest enough for the United States. But are we offering insurgents enough to compete effectively or, as critics on both right and left charge, "only enough to die"? Reagan met that criticism, rhetorically, in the 1986 State of the Union address, pledging a degree of moral and material assistance "not just to fight and die for freedom but to fight and win freedom."
Really? In Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Cambodia? Even if the other side escalates its aid? Having claimed the moral high ground, Reagan risks being marooned there. He is hard put to deliver enough "to fight and win" but he cannot promise less without exposing himself to principled reproach. It would not do for him to say, as some of the shrewdest supporters and critics alike say of the Reagan Doctrine, that its purpose is simply to bleed the Russians, to add to their costs of empire. That is a rationale of realpolitik, and one that imposes the heaviest costs, real costs, on those struggling for freedom, since they are likely to struggle on but not to reach their goal, to fight but not to win. It is an ironic twist to a policy supposedly devoted to a higher purpose. We can comfort ourselves by saying we are merely supporting their decision to struggle. We can say that any form of anti-communist struggle, no matter how costly, is moral. But the burden is borne very unequally, not in a manner that a careful moralist would boast of.
There is the matter of the democratic quotient and political ambition of the "freedom fighters." Few Americans seem to question the credentials of the geographically and culturally remote Afghan rebels, though the Islamic fundamentalism many of them espouse would arguably produce a political order closer to the one found in current-day Iran than to that of the United States. They are freedom fighters in the sense of combating a foreign occupation but not in the sense conventionally indicated by the use of the term "freedom." There are experts, moreover, who assert that the particular Afghans receiving U.S. support represent elements selected by Pakistan for its purposes, not by the United States for its own. In short, there is little reason to believe that these Afghans support either the ongoing U.N. talks, of which they are not a part, or the idea of negotiations outlined by President Reagan at the United Nations last fall.
Of Nicaragua it is perhaps enough to say that the inner politics of the contras hinges on a struggle between democrats and remnants of Somoza’s old National Guard, and that American military support tends to put cards in the hands of the latter. In Angola the United States has now thrown its weight behind a tribal leader whose professed commitment to democracy must be set against, among other things, his reliance on South Africa and his training in Mao’s China. The two Cambodian factions to which we are offering token aid are so weak and dependent that our assistance to them risks becoming, in effect, aid to the dominant resistance group led by the genocidal Pol Pot. Fighting communism, one might say, is one thing; building democracy is another.
Then there is the matter of a protracted stalemate or the threat of defeat. In reviving aid to the Nicaraguan contras, Congress swallowed its misgivings that, eventually, the American government might itself join the Nicaraguan battle out of frustration. But such frustration is not beyond imagining and the circumstances would find some Americans arguing that we had a commitment to keep, prestige to uphold, resolve to demonstrate—the considerations commonly invoked when the national security value, the feasibility or the popularity of a given intervention is in question. In other circumstances, the United States might respond to stalemate and frustration by plodding on. The existence of a doctrine generates pressures to honor it. It does not prevent a decision to cut losses but it can make this course more difficult to carry out.
There is a further doubt about the President’s stated goal of a negotiated solution. The logic of his position points to a more ambitious intent to dislodge the local regime in question and humble its Soviet patrons: to "win." This is vexing. The Contadora plan for negotiations, which would involve lowering the temperature of the Nicaragua dispute, smothering it in external concern and drawing the internal parties into a political process, fares poorly. The negotiating track in the other Third World conflicts is bleak, too. So those who lean to "negotiations" are not well placed to insist that they have the answer. To be honest, they need to ask themselves whether the rational liberal premise that negotiated solutions are possible has any greater objective merit than the darker conservative suspicion that they are not. Certainly all of us would feel better if we could locate a successful model or precedent in which a civil war between communists and anti-communists, both with great-power patrons, had been peacefully resolved.
But President Reagan has a winner-take-all bent that hardly appears more promising. He believes, again not without reason, that Marxist regimes have an inner dynamic that drives them beyond the limits of reliable power-sharing. That belief pervaded the "regional peace process" he offered at the United Nations last October. In it he asked the Soviet-backed regimes in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola and Ethiopia to sit down with the anti-communist guerrillas and prepare to submit their hard-won power to popular approval. Moscow and Washington would then "verify elimination of the foreign military presence"—which amounts to elimination of Soviet-bloc presence. Each country would then be "welcomed back [sic] into the world economy," that is, the Western fold.
The same puristic devotion to "freedom," or to "winning," marked Reagan’s rejection of the Nicaraguan elections of November 4, 1984. The disagreeable choice—and Marxists will always tend to present disagreeable choices—was whether to accept a flawed election and work from there in a difficult political context, or to reject the election, as Reagan did, and work in what has turned out to be an even more difficult military context. Supporters of the Reagan approach say he is patiently strengthening his bargaining position. Realists reply that the Reagan Doctrine has so far brought him the worst of both worlds: political failure and military frustration alike.
Somberly, one must ask how the Reagan Doctrine and, no less, its Soviet counterpart fit the goal of improved relations that the two powers accepted at the Geneva summit in November 1985. Reagan went there insisting that Soviet global conduct was the number one issue; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev retorted that only arms control was on the table. The two positions appeared to pass like ships in the night.
There is a difficult history here. Nikita Khrushchev declared wars of national liberation "sacred." The tendency to take such words seriously was one reason the United States intervened in Vietnam. Fortunately Moscow, despite its slogans, did not have the reach in the 1960s to go much beyond its commitments to Hanoi and Havana. In the 1970s the Soviets, seeking American sanction of their claim to great-power parity, and the Americans, hoping to regulate a burgeoning superpower competition in the Third World, experimented with devising rules within a framework of détente. The project for a code of conduct collapsed, partly because the Kremlin could not resist new targets of opportunity, for example in Angola.
Now the big insurgencies are anti-communist. The shoe is pinching Moscow’s foot, and Washington is enjoying Soviet discomfiture. President Reagan, in his tender of a regional peace process, offered local Marxist "warring parties" (his term for the five Soviet-sponsored governments) and Moscow itself a role, but a loser’s role. Believing as he does in freedom, it was a natural gesture. Yet it strains credulity to think that Gorbachev would accept this Reagan approach to the Third World any sooner than Reagan would endorse Gorbachev’s views on class war.
So far the President has not raised the level of American commitment in any of these insurgencies to any degree that truly threatens the Soviet position. In that sense the bark of the Reagan Doctrine is worse than its bite, and this supports the comforting proposition that Reagan can have his insurgencies without losing his access to Moscow. To the extent that the President satisfies the claims of prudence, however, he undermines the claims of ideology. Strategic considerations may rationalize a policy of keeping the pressure on Moscow. Moral considerations and the political pressures they generate will keep pushing the President toward escalating and trying to win. The Afghanistan and Nicaragua interventions are in their seventh and fifth years respectively, and the longer they drag on—without success for the United States—the closer they will bring Washington to the choice of escalating or cutting losses, each with its own calculus of costs and risks.
In some American minds it is as though we had a right to roll back Soviet power from all the new places it penetrated in the 1970s; then the game would be more or less even and the two sides could strike a deal. But politics is not a game with an agreed baseline. If we know one thing about great-power politics, moreover, it is that action breeds reaction. The Soviets pushed too hard for American patience in the 1970s, creating extra strains that neither détente nor arms control could withstand, and in the process moving politics and policy in the United States notably to the right. Now the possibility exists that Washington, in a heady mood, could push too hard for Soviet tolerance in the 1980s. A new leader in the Kremlin, one may speculate, could have more to prove on this front.
Where is the pressure point? The American role in Cambodia is too small for Moscow to stew about. In Angola the Kremlin may be prepared to exploit an American involvement easily depicted as a partnership with South Africa. Nicaragua is for the Russians ultimately a geopolitical throwaway, where American engagement serves certain Soviet ends and an outright American victory might do no special harm. But in Afghanistan, on its border, the Soviet Union has much to lose: if it does, the Soviets may be driven to make the United States pay. Bringing further pressure on Pakistan would be one way; putting some aspect of bilateral relations with Washington on the line would be another. Yet it is not only conservatives but also liberals who leap to the cause of the Afghan freedom fighters—Jimmy Carter was the first to apply the term to them. The Administration is not reckless, but it is letting itself be pushed into a situation where there is no consensus on whether our purpose is victory, negotiation or simply the infliction of pain on the Russians, and where there is too little calibration of how Moscow might someday respond.
Finally, the Reagan Doctrine forces us to go beyond the specifics of regional situations and their effects on great-power relations and to weigh what kind of a world we are trying to shape. Is it a world of sovereign states that accept certain obligations and common rules, or one in which precedence goes to the pursuit of values that are larger than nations?
I would argue that a world of states has its limitations but its considerable comforts, too. The impulse to freedom is strong among us but it can produce a romantic policy. A country with our pervasive international interests has a great investment in the ways of world order. Our readiness to ignore conventional forms of respect for national sovereignty, and to bolster forces that oppose governments, inevitably reinforces a like readiness by governments and forces hostile to us. And in that kind of competition, a government that is accountable to a democratic public opinion in a society ruled by law is inevitably going to be at a comparative disadvantage.
Many of us affirm the cause of freedom. We are eager to support this impulse in certain circumstances. But the last, liberal, Administration did not need a doctrine to fall in behind the mujahedeen. The best thing about the Reagan Doctrine is that Ronald Reagan himself has resisted pressures from his own core constituency to make him apply it indiscriminately.
The issue finally facing us is not simply the measure of devotion to our ideals. It is the wisdom and value of American involvement in foggy conditions and the question of how best to preserve American influence over the long haul. One does not have to be a Pollyanna to believe that the desire of struggling new Third World regimes to maintain their independence and to modernize effectively will tend to pull most of them away from the Soviet orbit as time goes on. To the extent that the Reagan Doctrine is prudently managed, it fails in its stated purpose of liberation. If it were to be managed with an eye to achieving prompter local successes, it could too easily slip out beyond the circle of acceptable costs and risks. This is what must temper our impatience to load up the guns of July.