The great powers recede

A FASCINATING symmetry exists in the current behavior of the world's two great powers - the United States and the Soviet Union. Both are letting local human nature take over on their borders. Both have given up the attempt to impose their will upon defiant neighbors.

The Soviets are doing it in Afghanistan. The Americans are doing it in Central America.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan continues, though the mujahideen are capturing one town after another as the Soviets pull back. The Moscow-backed regime in Kabul, still controls that city and mans garrisons in the other principal cities. But the government is under siege in several cities and has begun parleying with the resistance. An end to the Soviet puppet regime's rule seems to be in sight.

There was doubt in the West when the withdrawal began. Could the USSR ever allow a conquered and occupied neighbor to make good its escape?

There is no longer any doubt. The Soviets are going. The puppet regime is in retreat. Afghanistan is going to work out the shape of its own future, by itself.

As for the US: Recently the US recalled its ambassador to Mexico as a way of protesting the release by Mexico of a Puerto Rican wanted in the US.

The US had asked for extradition under its existing treaty with Mexico of one William Morales, convicted in the US of acts of ``terrorism'' including a 1975 bombing in New York in which four were killed and 60 injured. Morales had been imprisoned in the US; he escaped to Mexico and was reimprisoned there. He was released by the Mexicans to Cuba on the allegation that he was ``a political fighter for the independence of Puerto Rico.''

Would this have happened a year ago?

Things have changed since the US stopped giving arms to the contras in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas are surviving there. General Manuel Antonio Noriega is strong man in Panama in defiance of Washington. A new military dictator has set himself up as strong man in Haiti, also in spite of US wishes.

The Reagan administration in Washington has spent over six years of serious effort, plus millions of dollars worth of guns and ammunition, in trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At one time that seemed the primary purpose of the Reagan White House. It was one reason the administration got mixed up in the guns-for-hostages deal with Iran.

The effort to unseat the Sandinistas belongs to history now. There is no longer any serious effort to persuade Congress to change its mind about the contras. There will be no more guns and bullets going to them from the US.

Under neighborly Central American pressure the Sandinistas may clean up their act. They might allow the contra leaders to come home and resume a normal political life. But if the civil war there winds down, it will not be on contra terms and it will not involve the overthrow of the Sandinista regime. President Daniel Ortega Saavedra is likely to still be in office in Managua when Ronald Reagan retires to his ranch in California.

No one can yet foresee the shape and composition of the successor regime in Kabul. The mujahideen leaders are anything but a united band of political brothers. But they will sort it out among themselves. They, not Moscow, will shape their country's future.

A probable corollary is that the future Afghan regime will continue to look to Washington for support as the Sandinistas will continue to look to Moscow. But, by agreement between Washington and Moscow, the support will be minor, not major. It will not include major weapons. And, above all, it will not include military bases for the remote great power.

Another way of saying all this is that the US and the USSR have mutually agreed to behave - at least for the time being - like satisfied, rather than expansionist, great powers.

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