The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has sparked dramatically new thinking here on ways in which the United States can defend itself and its allies. The hardening public mood in the US seems to allow President Carter considerable leeway if he wishes to choose new, more assertive approaches.
But the only safe thing which can be said at this point is that Afghanistan has caused the President to accelerate moves aimed at closer defense cooperation with a wide range of countries -- all the way from Egypt to Pakistan to China. The major change under way may be the emerging defense cooperation between the United States and China. It begins to look to some observers like an informal alliance.
If some of the administration's foreign policy experts have their way, the President will take advantage of the "opportunity" presented by Afghanistan to "think big" on defense -- not just in relation to China, but also on defense arrangements to protect oil supplies from the Gulf. In the Congress, too, there is talk of bolder approaches:
Congressman Paul Findley (R) of Illinois, not considered a "hawk," says the US ought to secretly supply weapons to the Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviets.* Washington should work with allies to se cure Indian Ocean sea lanes, he says, and he wants to "restructure" NATO to counter Soviet pressure, not just in Europe, but wherever it may occur.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, who was a critic of the Vietnam war effort and supports SALT II, says the US should be considering whether or not it should place in the Middle East, "at a minimum," the "forward basing components" for American strike forces. The senator does not think American public opinion would have tolerated such an idea six months to a year ago. Afghanistan, in his view, has created opportunities for action which did not exist before.
Few people talk, however, about reviving anything like the Western-sponsored Middle East defense alliances of the past. For one thing, Saudi Arabia would not go along with such an idea.
US ties with Israel make it difficult not only for the Saudis, but also for many other Arabs to ally themselves more closely and overtly with Washington. Emile A. Nakhleh, a Palestinian who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote after a recent trip to the Gulf that most Gulf leaders are "baffled" by Washington's apparent unwillingness to pursue a solution of the Arab-Israeli dispute based on Palestinian self- determination.
There is another problem for some of the conservative leaders of the Gulf region: They fear that too strong an association with the United States will make them targets for internal dissent.
Frederick G. Dutton, a former assistant secretary of state who works as a consultant for the Saudis in Washington, warns against the dangers of trying to fit the Gulf into a framework of US-Soviet confrontation.
"The quick, natural American thing is to want to fit everything into a new alliance," Mr. Dutton says. "We like tangible things. We like to simplify things . . . partly perhaps because of the broad strokes we paint as a superpower.
"The world is so much more complicated now than it was in the days of the old alliances," Mr. Dutton says. "You've got Islam, you've got the oil problem, and generally you've got the whole problem of the developing world. . . . It's not a bipolar world.
"This is a multi-level chess game," he says.
Mr. Dutton notes that the Saudis, for example, while trying to develop strong ties with Pakistan, which seems most immediately affected by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, are also developing relations with Pakistan's old rival, India, where the Saudis have financed at least two oil refineries.
He also warns that should the US establish bases in Egypt, it will stimulate fears and anxieties in the Gulf. Some Gulf leaders are quick to recall unwanted past intervention by Egypt in the Arabian peninsula.
Much may still depend on the sorting out of differences among President Carter's own advisers. There is a tendency for some officials associated with National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to push for a much more activist defense policy, starting with the arming of Pakistan. The US, China, and Saudi Arabia could find themselves cooperating in such measures.
State Department officials, for their part, urge caution.
But some officials think that unless the US moves quickly to gain Pakistani cooperation in helping to arm the Muslim guerrillas now fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, the Soviets will succeed in crushing the rebellion.
Prof. Richard Newell, an expert on Afghanistan at the University of Northern Iowa, sees the Muslim guerrillas as "one key to delay -- delay needed in order to give the rest of the region a chance to respond."
Press reports from guerrilla camps just inside Afghanistan indicate that the guerrillas are fighting with an odd assortment of weapons, many of them outdated. If they are to counter Soviet armor and helicopter gunships, they will need antiaircraft and antitank weapons as well as communications equipment.
But a final decision on such matters may have to await completion of US Defense Secretary Harold Brown's consultations in China. That in itself is an indication, however, of how times are changing.