THE trouncing of the Iranian Navy in the Gulf has temporarily restored America's machismo. While basking in the afterglow, however, Americans should not be blind to the fact that second-rate powers are becoming first-rate threats. They are quite capable of drawing the United States into imbroglios not of its own making. It is extraordinarily difficult in a democracy to frame a common agenda for dealing with regional concerns. On the one side, powerful inhibitions exist which oppose any intervention in the third world. On the other, a cultural arrogance exists which assumes that the US will always be superior to paltry states in regional backwaters. Both views lay the groundwork for political trench warfare and anguished self-scrutiny.
These views reflect a profoundly disturbing reality: US foreign and defense policy is out of sync with the changing dimensions of threat. The US is not so strong as to be able to ignore the mounting danger in the third world. Neither is the US strong enough to be able to enforce its will as and when it chooses.
The ground rules under which the US has operated since World War II are eroding. For much of the past three decades, the primary concern has been with the Soviet menace. New threats to US security, however, are more closely related to the embedded regional antagonisms of well-armed third-world states.
Maintaining the nuclear stalemate and avoiding war in Europe remain important concerns. Yet, ironically, the US and the Soviet Union now share a number of common problems. Their third-world leverage is declining. Both are wary of committing forces at the margins, having backed away in defeat from guerrilla warriors in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Both are increasingly preoccupied and constrained by internal economic problems. The US and USSR may also find themselves facing common threats, such as nuclear-armed third-world states.
Even as the US moves into a less confrontational phase with the USSR, the prospects for international collision almost everywhere else are on the rise. Adversaries, such as those in the Gulf crucible, have both sophisticated arms and agents of mass destruction.
Some of these capabilities are indigenously produced, such as the Iraqi chemical arsenal. Others, such as Chinese Silkworm missiles or French Exocets, come from non-Soviet sources. But this violent stew is symbolic of a military challenge the US may face in every region, including its own hemisphere.
The implications are profound.
Third-world conflicts can no longer be considered troubleshooting at the margins of security or a subset of the US-Soviet contest. Containing regional adversaries must become a central policy goal.
A more strategically fluid world requires that the next administration prepare the Congress and the public to meet new dangers and new demands. The US is now at a new foreign policy watershed, perhaps as profound as the development of containment strategy in the 1940s. What made that policy so successful for so long was not simply a common recognition of threat, but the deliberate effort to use bipartisan cooperation to ensure satisfactory execution of policy.
The lesson for the next administration is that a new global policy is not enough. A conscious effort must be made from the outset to restore domestic political collaboration, by involving prominent members of both parties in Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. Formation of special executive-legislative committees, allowing senior bipartisan congressional participation, should also be considered.
The US must resign itself with good grace to less collective cooperation with its allies in third-world regions. NATO is not sufficiently flexible to cover out-of-area contingencies. Instead the US must have the political alacrity to form ad hoc bilateral or multilateral arrangements; it should not needlessly carp when formal allied responses are unattainable.
In an age of diminishing resources, the US must find new ways to leverage its assets more effectively. One implication is that economically stronger allies must either pay more for the support of US forces committed to their defense or prepare for a contraction in US support as US defense resources are freed up for other tasks. Within the third-world arena, this will mean identifying policies that will sustain a long-term, lower-profile presence - to anticipate and shape rather than merely react to the emerging order.
Challenges from the third world will inevitably increase, no matter what the US does. But the US has demonstrated no more than its ability to respond to direct provocation. Even then, American triumphs have been ad hoc and largely fortuitous, not based on strategy or initiative. US failures reflect US inattention rather than the enemy's prowess.
The US is in danger of becoming a beleaguered giant. The next administration must find the vision and courage to face up to these difficult challenges and to frame a more vigorous approach to the problem.
Andrew Goldberg and Debra Van Opstal are fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.