Dear Secretary Powell:

From everything I've read and heard, you - like many people with direct experience of war - have a strong aversion to indecisive, long-drawn-out battles. That aversion seems wise.

But I would like to hear more about the alternatives you and President Bush propose in all those "messy" trouble spots around the world where there can be no quick military victory.

Clearly, there are still two levels at which American national strategy must operate.

One is the level of "grand" (nuclear-related) global strategy. In your approach to national missile defense, you seem rightly skeptical over whether there's a technical "quick fix" to the United States' longstanding vulnerability to the missile forces of other nations. I hope that skepticism on national missile defense leads you to search actively for viable cooperative solutions to our vulnerability. But meanwhile, we still have an unmatched capacity for deterrence.

What I want to write about here, however, is the whole group of much smaller-seeming threats that the US and our friends face around the world today. Threats like those in the Balkans, the Middle East, or parts of Africa or Asia.

You have often loudly criticized the idea of sending American troops into such situations. But now that you're secretary of State, you have a unique opportunity - and responsibility - to develop a range of alternative approaches. Turning our collective back on the world is not, after all, a real option in today's world.

The first alternative must be a robust American diplomacy that intervenes proactively to help head off future crises.

This is especially needed in cases where clear American interests are at stake. Which makes your current "hands off" approach to Israeli-Arab diplomacy so puzzling. Remember, in 1982-83, American troops had to deploy to an unstable Middle East to end a crisis caused by Ariel Sharon's aggressiveness. The same could happen again, unless Washington holds him firmly back.

As part of this active diplomacy, the State Department needs to upgrade its capacity to give warning of, and deal with, emerging crises around the world - and to do so in timely fashion.

That means carefully tracking the effects of food shortages, market failures, the AIDS epidemic, and outbreaks of inter-group hatred around the world. And then, in alliance with other powers, coming up with workable plans to deal with those crises before they explode into outright war.

In Kosovo, at the point when President Clinton decided to go to war, there were still several avenues for nonviolent resolution of the province's problems that had not been fully explored. Given the suffering that accompanied that war, and the unstable local situation it left us, Washington should certainly have gone the extra mile for diplomacy.

Now you've inherited the instability there. But you may be lucky enough to have a regime in Belgrade that can help to find a longer-term solution.

Early warning, and nonviolent conflict resolution - these are tasks the State Department is supposed to carry out, anyway. But as you have pointed out, State's budgets have eroded badly in recent years. Now, you're in a unique position to win for your "troops" there all the resources they need.

An ounce of prevention really is worth more than a pound of cure. And still on prevention: I hope you go to Congress early with a strong request for increased foreign aid.

But however much you're able to upgrade the United States' means of preventing future crises, you know those efforts won't always succeed.

There will be times when the UN Security Council needs to undertake rapid and forceful intervention. As in Rwanda, in 1994. President Clinton, to his shame, did a lot to block the UN from intervening in a timely way.

I hope you and President Bush never repeat that negligence.

But beyond that, I urge you to consider establishing a special volunteer force of specially trained and equipped American peacekeepers, which can be made available to the Security Council at very short notice, to deal with such genocidal crises.

Can such a force be sold to Congress, when many members remain very skeptical of the UN? I think the case for it can be made effectively - especially if it's tied to the idea of preventing genocide. If anyone can make the case, it's you.

Many Americans, it's true, still prefer to see the US military acting unilaterally. And they like the idea of size in the military: big tanks, big ships, big missiles. But face it, most of the challenges we face today are ill-suited to those 1950s-era tools. Now, more than big weapons, we need diplomatic smarts and all the other tools of crisis prevention and resolution. And you, Mr. Secretary, are the one who needs to provide them.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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