How many guns, and for what purpose?

ONCE more the battle is joined between the Reagan White House and the Congress over how many guns are needed in the American arsenal. The House of Representatives has put forward a budget for fiscal 1987 which provides for $35 billion less in money for guns than the budget put forward by the White House.

Once more there will probably be a compromise somewhere in between White House and Congress figures, because once more the federal government in Washington is split over what the guns are for.

It is not, at bottom, a question of how many guns are enough to make the United States safe from Soviet invasion. The question is whether the US would pursue a forward, interventionist, global foreign policy, or settle back to defend only its true national interests.

This underlying question has yet to be settled.

It has dominated the background of the debate over weapons ever since the Soviets emerged as a second global power in the wake of World War II.

For the first five years after victory in 1945, the US was the only true global military power. The Soviets possessed enormous local military power, but little capability of projecting that power at any substantial distance beyond their own frontiers.

From 1945 to 1950 the US had a total monopoly on nuclear weapons, and was the only sea power able to control all the major sea lanes of the world and the only air power able to land troops and supply them by air on any continent.

That condition began to change when the first Soviet nuclear weapon was tested successfully in August of 1949. Within half a year of that event the Soviets unleashed, encouraged, or at least gave consent to the invasion of South Korea by North Korea.

And from then we date the steady development of a Soviet ability to project influence by a Navy capable of keeping the high seas for extended periods of time and an Air Force capable of ranging far beyond the Russian landmass. Russia, too, became a global superpower.

The first ``cold war'' was an attempt to keep ahead of the Soviets in power projection and thus retain the dominant military position over the entire globe. It ended with the ``Nixon Doctrine,'' which President Nixon launched during his trip to China in 1972.

That so-called doctrine (never spelled out in any official text) amounted to saying that regional powers should take over the responsibility for their own defense. The US would no longer try to run everything.

By recognizing China and resuming US relations with China, Mr. Nixon in effect withdrew the US from the mainland of Asia (not completed, however, until the end of the Vietnam war). He proceeded to cut down the US armed forces from a 3.5 million-man level to a 2.5 million level, where it has remained. He thereby renounced the effort to keep the US decisively ahead of the Soviets in all regions of the world.

Substantial elements in the US political spectrum never accepted the Nixon reduction in US global responsibilities. They coalesced into a new political constituency dedicated to trying to regain the decisive lead over the Soviets which had existed before Nixon. They have dominated White House military thinking ever since. They have not, however, dominated the Congress.

The majority in the House favors Nixonism, i.e., a military ability to play a secondary role in many parts of the world but not the ability to play the major role everywhere.

No man is wise enough to be able to draw an absolute limit on the number of guns necessary to play a Nixonian role in the world. It is safe to assume that the weapons Mr. Reagan wants falls short of being enough to regain the lost dominance of 1945 but more than enough to permit the US to play a decisive role in areas of vital national interest.

The real issue, then, is over foreign policy. Does the US need to pursue a forward and interventionist policy on all continents and all oceans? Or can the US safely limit its policy to the defense of its vital interests?

Until the vital interests are defined and until Americans can agree to care only about vital interests, the arguments over guns will continue.

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