Carter's military warning

President Carter's State of the Union address was craftily designed for two audiences -- domestic and foreign. Politically, Mr. Carter has probably undercut his Republican opponents and further damaged the chances of Democratic rival Edward Kennedy by sounding so tough on the Russians. He has also carefully avoided alienating support among the youth of the country and the Jewish community; that is, with the 1980 campaign underway, he refrained from immediately reinstituting the draft or speaking out forcefully on the Palestinian question. The speech should therefore serve him well on the domestic front.

Diplomatically, the President sought to stress his firm resolve to counter Soviet aggressiveness without, however, feeding a dangerous mood of hysteria and crisis. We note a significant -- and wise -- change in his characterization of the Afghanistan invasion. It is no longer "the most serious threat to world peace since the second world war." On Wednesday night the cautious phrasing was that the "implications" of the intervention "could pose" the most serious threat. That is certainly the more accurate reading.

This does not mean the potential threat must not be addressed, however, and the President made clear that the US is prepared to use even military force to repel a Soviet grab of the Persian Gulf region. To the extent that Mr. Carter's statement serves as a warning to moscow, it is timely and useful. At the same time it raises some questions. Will the mere fact of publicly drawing a circle around the Gulf region and designating it an area of vital US interest be perceived by countries in the region as a kind of new "imperialistic" Monroe Doctrine? Surely it is not intended as such. But we would like to think, too, that the administration consulted with the Gulf nations before opting for such a frontal rather than subtler diplomatic approach.

The Carter declaration is carefully worded, of course. The geographic boundaries are deliberately not drawn. And while domestic hardliners will tend to stress the potential for military response, the statement reads that an outside assault on the region will be repelled by "use of any means necessary, including military force." This allows for flexibility. In the event of crisis, the President presumably would purse the "Collective action" and "consultation and cooperation" with countries in the area he spoke of.

Overall, the State of the Union message can hardly be labeled a new foreign policy "doctrine." Too many things are not addressed -- how to deal with the internal threat to countries, for instance, or the whole crucial issue of North-South relations. It is not an all- encompassing, well-conceived articulation of strategy and goals. At most it announces the beginning of a new and tougher policy of making American defenses more efficient to meet a perceived Soviet challenge. Resumption of Selective Service registration (at the opportune time) is a part of the buildup and, in our view, a necessary part if the US is to project a serious image of discipline and resolve.

But the policy is not without unresolved problems. The enormous military costs, the growing budget deficits they will entail, the still-undefined role of the CIA, the ambivalence of nations in the Middle East, not to mention of the Western allies -- these are some of the issues which will have to be intelligently thought through and debated before words are translated into substance.

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