WHAT is the obligation of the United States to foreigners who help it at some risk to themselves and then find that the US has changed its policy and is no longer interested? This has happened many times:
The anti-Castro Cubans who survived the Bay of Pigs were eventually ransomed. Many thought the invasion had failed because promised US support was not forthcoming. Whether the American support had, in fact, been promised is doubtful, but many people expected it.
President Gerald Ford delayed the American withdrawal from Saigon to try to protect South Vietnamese who had worked for the US. During the last years of the war, one of the arguments for toughing it out was that a communist bloodbath would follow the US departure. It did not happen in Vietnam; the horrors were inflicted on Cambodia.
The Meo people in Laos were almost wiped out while fighting as American proxies against the North Vietnamese. Granted, the Meo did not like the Vietnamese and were happy to fight them, but they were still fighting a US war and the US walked away from it. The surviving Meo were left to get to Thailand as best they could.
More recently, we have the examples of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) force of Jonas Savimbi, the resistance in Afghanistan, and the contras in Nicaragua. The Angolans, the Afghans, and the contras are serving their own purposes first; it is secondary to them that coincidentally they also serve the larger purposes of the US. But suppose US policy changes and they are left to their own devices without any US aid. Does the US have any responsibility for the consequences?
One of the arguments for going ahead with the Bay of Pigs was that nobody could think of anything else to do with the US-trained Cuban exiles. It is a poor reason for pursuing a bad policy, but the problem it illustrates is clear and pressing in the case of the contras.
If we now stop aid to the contras, what do the contras do? There is unlikely to be further largess from Brunei or Saudi Arabia, or even rich Americans. It seems improbable that the contras would be welcome either to return to Nicaragua or to stay in Honduras. Do they join the Cubans and Haitians already in Miami? And what happens to Honduras, the classic case of the innocent bystander? Hondurans have seen their country converted into a base from which other people are fighting a war against a neighbor with whom Honduras was formerly at peace.
If the US eventually makes some deal with the Soviet Union about Afghanistan, what happens to the Afghan rebels that the US has been supporting? What happens to the Afghan refugees in Pakistan? And what happens to the Pakistanis who have given refuge to the Afghans?
Pakistan is a much bigger country than Honduras, and the impact of the Afghans in Pakistan is less than the impact of the Nicaraguans in Honduras; but there is evidence of mounting tension in Pakistan between refugees and hosts. US policy toward Pakistan is hostage to the refugees just as US policy toward Honduras is hostage to the contras. It is more difficult both to take a tough line about nuclear proliferation in Pakistan and to restrain military grants and other aid to Honduras.
Such consequences are unintended and largely unforeseen when policies are adopted. Especially unforeseen is the need to make wrenching decisions either to abandon friends or keep increasingly unsustainable policies. Occasionally an acceptable middle ground can be found, such as the adjustment the US made with Taiwan when the US recognized the People's Republic of China.
The adoption of a policy to support a particular government or group is usually accompanied by fervent vows of enduring allegiance. When later events indicate the policy should be modified, these vows are recalled as arguments against modification. However, the vows should never have been made in the first place - and probably were made without proper authority. Perhaps the policy itself should never have been adopted. Aid to the contras and Savimbi's UNITA are good examples.
The US cannot be expected to continue indefinitely with mistaken policies simply because changing them is going to hurt someone. If the US has really misled others about the degree of its support, it can - and should - try to soften the blow when the support is withdrawn. But most of all, the US should be more careful about misleading them in the first place.
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.