Third-world conflicts and US interests

A RECENTLY issued report of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy illustrates once more the difficulties experts in strategy have in dealing with the United States position in the third world. The report, ``Discriminate Deterrence,'' was prepared for the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council Advisor by a committee of prominent strategic experts. Chapter II is entitled ``Third World Conflicts and U.S. Interests.'' The proposed strategy for these regions acknowledges that ``U.S. forces will not in general be combatants,'' and recommends support for anticommunist insurgencies, higher levels and greater flexibility for security assistance, the development of ``cooperative forces'' with third-world allies, the maximum use of US technological advantages, and the development of alternatives to overseas bases. In discussing the development of ``cooperative forces'' from third-world allies that would be prepared to intervene on behalf of the US, no effort is made to identify such allies other than passing reference to the Korean and Philippine participation in Vietnam.

The report repeats Washington's familiar concerns that third-world conflicts can endanger access to critical regions and damage US credibility and self-confidence. The frequent references to the Soviet Union imply that the conflicts are, by and large, products of the East-West competition. The inference is clear that conflicts will continue to erupt which, as in the past, will raise the issue of direct or surrogate US involvement.

The principal emphasis is on the threat of ``low-intensity conflict,'' including insurgencies, organized terrorism, paramilitary crime, and sabotage.

This report, in common with many strategic analyses of the third world, oversimplifies the past and extrapolates from that oversimplification to assume strategic requirements for the future. No effort is made to analyze in any greater depth the reasons for these conflicts or the likelihood of repetitions. The threats to US interests in the third world that have preoccupied strategic planners for the past four decades have either been in areas contiguous to the Soviet Union, in circumstances arising out of unresolved colonial issues, or in the overthrow of unpopular regimes with which the US was closely identified. These categories embrace each of the situations liturgically identified as examples of Soviet aggression - Afghanistan, Kampuchea, Aden, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The Iraq-Iran war has its seeds, not in Soviet machinations, but in a territorial dispute that is decades old. Similarly the conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean, the source of much of the world's terrorism, arise from the contested disposition of the Palestine mandate.

Undoubtedly the Soviets exploited many of these situations to the disadvantage of the US, not only through military action, but also through sympathetic rhetoric, diplomacy, and economic gestures. But they did not create these circumstances, and a complete analysis of the US problems in a given region requires looking well beyond the East-West competition.

Formulating a sensible strategy for the US in the third world requires asking some hard questions that this report does not cover. Are there areas of potential trouble in the third world today that will, in the future, justify US intervention? In an era in which the US is freer of the constraints of the post-colonial period, do the Soviets have the same opportunities in regional disputes? Where are the Batistas, the Haile Selassies, the Somozas whose rule provides opportunities today for outside subversion? Where are the countries whose forces could intervene on behalf of the US? How does a strategy based on intervention balance the interests of the US with the exercise of influence in the resolution of conflict?

The writers of the report can point out that their mission was only to address the strategic aspect. Too often in our history, however, has the strategic aspect been addressed without reference to the political realities in the affected regions. The risk is that more decisions will be made like that which established a Rapid Deployment Force that has never been able to operate in regions or circumstances for which it was designed. To repeat analyses and conclusions that oversimplify the issues and exaggerate the future threat does little service to true strategic planning.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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