US policy toward third-world trouble spots is widely faulted for neglecting root causes of dissent and conflict, concentrating instead on Soviet-Cuban (Syrian-Libyan-et al.) inflammation of the resulting chaos. Critics are branded as indifferent to the global fire-hazard created by communist arsonists.
Debates between these two interpretations of reality have highlighted a deep conceptual weakness, not unique to the present administration, that persistently frustrates American foreign policy goals, whether in the Middle East, Central America, or southern Africa. That weakness is the failure to come to grips with both Soviet strategic challenges and indigenous third-world turbulence. The first perspective dominates conservative ''realist'' thinking; the second, liberal ''humanitarian'' thinking. The twain rarely meet at top policymaking levels. But they are two sides of the national security coin.
Stability continues to be the principal goal toward developing areas, for a status quo power which prospers in an orderly and predictable international environment. Third-world trade and resources are of mounting importance to the US economy. And the most likely place for World War III to start is an escalating third-world explosion. With approximately 11/2 new ''small wars'' starting annually, it is in our highest interest to find better ways to anticipate local conflicts and insulate them when they go critical, meanwhile building toward stable relations after the sometimes catastrophic transitions from dependency to autonomy.
To act on these three policy prescriptions, a comprehensive American strategy requires a far more penetrating diagnosis than we are currently making of socioeconomic-cultural-religious faultlines beneath potential political earthquakes. To get the diagnosis right calls for better intelligence, braver diplomatic reporting, and closer contact with the political opposition, not to mention pragmatic open mindedness on the part of US leaders.
Such a conflict-containing strategy also means encouraging multilateral responsibility for quarantining local conflicts, instead of acting unilaterally and then condemning international organizations for being irrelevant. Indeed, the best way to revive the UN - and US confidence in it - is to insist at the outset of local conflicts that the UN or regional international organizations seal them off, with whatever US support that requires.
Historically, we failed virtually all those tests in Batista's Cuba, the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique, imperial Iran, Somoza's Nicaragua, and pre-1979 El Salvador, despite ample early warning and multiple policy alternatives. Guatemala, the Philippines, much of the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, the Republic of Korea, and some or all of the Persian-Arabian Gulf loom on the same bleak horizon.
It is obvious that opportunities for external meddling are created by violent developmental crises experienced by some traditional societies as they encounter the universal drive for entitlements. But US policy priorities invariably stress countering the effects of revolutionary change - usually unsuccessfully - and rarely to ameliorating root causes. Soviet and Cuban militarized forays into the world's soft spots are very real, and short-term threats must be confronted. But the short term is forever, and the US continually trails after events, lurching into crisis after crisis to stem the fallout for exploding society.
''Development minded'' Americans pay the most attention to the socioeconomic-cultural roots of political change. But they lose credibility when they disdain power realities and ignore the need to keep Moscow from miscalculating the possible costs of aggressive conduct. Yet if liberals do too little homework on the Soviets, the national security-minded do too much. Extended deterrence may keep out Soviet offensive missiles. But it will not alter the conclusion by desperate people that violent change may be the only alternative to an intolerable economic, political, factional, or racial status quo.
To break this pattern requires thinking about two things at once - using policy ''binoculars'' in place of the tunnel vision that focuses only on third-world inequities or Soviet activism. Given the incapacity of policymakers for longer-term planning, the challenge for the private sector - educators, foundations, and think tanks - is to start producing hybrids: specialists equipped with generalists' integrative thinking; liberal humanists who can also become competent Sovietologists; and conservative realists able to shake off the nationalist mindset that makes stereotyped ciphers of third-world people and incomprehensible monsters of adversaries with whom we must coexist.