Reassessing the Reagan Doctrine

By , David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

IN three areas of the world - Afghanistan, southern Africa, and Cambodia - recent developments provide opportunities to assess the results of the so-called Reagan Doctrine, designed to establish democratic regimes and reduce Soviet influence in third-world regions. In each region the policy, although achieving the removal of military forces of the Soviet Union and its allies, has failed so far either to remove Marxist governments or to resolve the underlying issues that gave Moscow its opportunities. Combinations of diplomacy and pressure have brought about the total withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the beginning of a Cuban movement out of Angola, and the scheduled departure of the Vietnamese military from Cambodia. In each case the United States had a role through its support for anticommunist guerrilla elements.

American euphoria is premature, however. In Afghanistan, the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime remains in power in Kabul and the resistance forces have lost momentum. Predictions of a quick collapse of the communist government gave insufficient attention to the problems of a guerrilla movement shifting to more traditional warfare.

In southern Africa, the carefully negotiated agreement on the withdrawal of Cuban troops and the independence of Namibia is threatened by recent fighting between forces of the South-West Africa People's Organization and South Africa, and by the continuing civil war in Angola. The Marxist regime remains in power in Luanda.

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Vietnam has announced that its forces will be out of Cambodia by Sept. 30, but that decision appears to be predicated on the assumption that the regime it created will remain in power.

Why has the departure of communist military elements not been followed by clearer victories for democratic forces?

The removal of foreign military forces does not end the exercise of outside influence. In each case, the USSR has been able to leave in place equipment, supplies, and a friendly government. The removal of outside forces may actually strengthen the hand of the current regime by reducing the damaging impression that it is propped up by the external army.

Possible alternatives to the Marxist regimes have begun to appear less desirable to the US. In Afghanistan, the possibility of a broad-based democratic regime seems remote; more likely is the emergence of a fundamentalist Islamic regime. In Cambodia, the US and other nations that have pressed for the departure of the Vietnamese troops have come to realize that the Vietnam-backed Marxist regime could fall to the barbaric Khmer Rouge.

The resolution of the issues underlying the regional conflicts proved to be more complicated than the often simplistic rhetoric of the Reagan years suggested. Advocates of the Reagan Doctrine pictured the issue as a clear-cut one between Soviet-backed Marxist regimes and democratic resistance forces. Such a portrayal in Afghanistan dangerously minimized the historic difficulties of creating a unified leadership from among the scattered tribes of that land. In Angola, the multifaceted situation involved not only Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, but also two guerrilla movements that were not parties to the broad settlement. In Cambodia, the internal situation has long been at the mercy of external intrigues involving not only the USSR but also China and the nations of Southeast Asia.

The decision of the US to intervene in these areas through support for noncommunist guerrilla movements and by diplomatic efforts began in the Carter years and was reinforced by the Reagan Doctrine. The policy was based on a geostrategic view that saw the presence of Soviet-bloc military forces in third-world areas as threats to US security interests and assumed that, if these forces were removed, leadership friendly to Washington would emerge.

In none of the areas in which the doctrine was applied has such a development yet occurred. The Bush administration, therefore, faces a harder choice than either of its predecessors - whether to continue and possibly accelerate support for anticommunist forces in each area or ultimately to accept a compromise with the Soviet Union that, despite the ambitions of the Reagan doctrine, leaves regimes friendly to Moscow in place.

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