Treaties and Troop Placement: What's the Plan?

America's security will be at risk if we don't ask and answer some tough questions about our foreign-policy priorities

THOUGH discussion of Bosnia is now turning from peacekeeping to rebuilding, Americans still need to examine how we got there and decide what needs to be done to put our nation's foreign policy on a clearer, more principled footing.

We arrived at our third, recently expanded humanitarian mission as the result of management by crisis. In the long run, making defense policy this way runs serious risk of undermining the country's security, along with its credibility and leadership.

The United States cannot continue to try to right every wrong around the world. Sooner or later, some canny dictator will decide to make mischief. If our strength has been eroded piecemeal, will we be able to respond vigorously to a real security threat to the US?

Before we head off on another under-considered mission such as we have undertaken in Bosnia, we need to establish some principles for American involvement, so that both our friends and enemies will have realistic expectations of what we will and won't do.

We must examine these issues:

* Under what circumstances will the US commit its troops on the ground, risking their lives?

* What are our treaty obligations? Which ones should we be studying with an eye toward revising or strengthening in light of current circumstances? For instance, the anti-ballistic missile treaty may need revision, in the interests of both Russia and the US. And NATO expansion must take into consideration the possibility of further border and ethnic conflicts, which should not trigger our mutual defense obligations as is required in case of attack on a NATO member.

* What are the most likely future threats for which we must prepare? The crumbling of the Soviet empire, paradoxically, has presented us with a world more prone to strife. Racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts have erupted in Central Europe and outposts of the former Soviet Union. At least 30 countries have ballistic missile technology. Some Asian and Middle Eastern nations have - or will soon have - nuclear capabilities.

If these questions are not answered, we will dissipate scarce resources in pursuit of goals that, however noble, are nonstrategic.

We should begin a round of congressional hearings, public debate, and consultations with our allies, aimed at articulating a set of principles to guide US defense strategy. Congress has a fundamental, constitutional obligation to insist on being consulted, to help craft the policies on which our nation's survival depends, and to determine how defense resources can be allocated most wisely. It must be a bipartisan process carried out in collaboration with the executive branch.

The need for such a dialogue is clear to anyone who understands the basic economic principle of scarcity. We cannot do it all. We must choose among competing priorities.

The debates on Bosnia offered glimpses of the stark differences of opinion on these issues. For example, when sending in American ground troops is an option, does the president have free rein to commit forces if there is no national emergency or immediate threat to American lives or security? Do we want constabulary forces, or forces that are trained and ready to fight and win our wars? Do we want a robust missile defense, and, if so, do our existing treaty obligations square with the need for such defense?

Whenever we choose to dedicate our resources to noncombat missions, we are sacrificing the ability to perform combat missions at a world-class level. This increases the risk that a hostile power, perhaps armed with ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, will note our humanitarian commitments and decide to overplay its hand.

Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb recently recounted a set of principles, first enunciated by President Nixon. They include:

* Honoring our treaty commitments to respond to those who invade our allies.

* Providing a nuclear umbrella to the world against the threats of other nuclear powers.

* Supplying weapons and technical assistance to other countries where warranted - but not committing American forces to local conflicts.

These principles are a good starting place for the debate.

Foreign policy in the past three years has been ambiguous, dangerous, and expensive. If Congress and the executive branch don't collaborate on a long-term, strategic defense policy, Bosnia may not be the only place our troops are posted, waiting for the fog to lift.

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