FOR 45 years, as surely as spring has brought the first robin and the opening of the baseball season, it has also brought warnings from the Pentagon of new threats to the nation's security. This year the only difference has been uncertainty about the baseball season. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has sent the American armed forces on a desperate search for a new role. They have found it in the third world. ``Fundamental Soviet objectives in the third world do not appear to have changed,'' says the Pentagon's ``Defense Planning Guidance, 1992-97.'' The document calls on the US to back ``freedom fighters'' and to use military force to attack the ``root causes of instability'' in less developed countries. The Reagan Doctrine seems to be alive and well.
Defense Planning Guidance foresees the third world's cold war as a high-tech affair, and we have already had some experience with this. The Air Force was so eager to show off in Panama that it used one of its Stealth aircraft - in a country where most of the radar was controlled by the US.
It is ludicrous to postulate the continuation, unabated, of the cold war in the third world after it has sputtered to an end in Europe. For years, military planners have said that they cannot plan on the basis of a putative enemy's intentions; they have to plan on the basis of his capabilities. Whatever ``fundamental Soviet objectives in the third world'' may be, it is dazzlingly clear that Soviet capabilities are not up to continuing the cold war in that arena. The Soviet Union may count itself lucky if it does not slip into third world status itself and take half the Warsaw Pact with it.
Quite apart from what the Soviet Union may be up to, the Pentagon sees an indigenous threat in the third world requiring the continued pursuit of President Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The proliferation of nuclear weapons, in this view, means we need a defense against a third world attack.
Nuclear proliferation means we should not give up all our own nuclear weapons. We would not want to live in a world in which 10 or 12 otherwise non-threatening countries have these weapons and we do not. But SDI was a bad idea when there was a Soviet threat, and it is a worse idea when there is not a Soviet threat.
One who shares the enthusiasm of the Pentagon planners for the cold war in the third world is Fidel Castro. In a recent speech, Castro lamented that the collapse of Eastern Europe opened the way for US global domination. Cuba, he said, might have to assume the role of being among the last defenders of socialism. In other words, in this view, the US has not only won the cold war in Europe; now, by default, it has also won the cold war in the third world, and a global pax americana lies just ahead, marred only by a few holdouts like Cuba.
This scenario would also provide a role for the American armed forces - namely, policing imperial America's new dominions overseas. This would not be the same thing as fighting the cold war. It would be more akin to what the British army and navy did in the 19th century. But it would be something to do. It would also be politically and economically insupportable.
This search for a new mission is not a uniquely American military phenomenon. An East German army officer was shown the other day moaning that his career had been ``wiped out.'' He is one of hundreds of thousands. Add the other Warsaw Pact armies, including the Soviets, and the number is no doubt in the millions.
The Soviet military may have had a new and unwanted role in containing ethnic strife and separatist nationalities. Both the Soviet and the American militaries have new, unexpected roles in Europe. They are suddenly seen as elements of stability amid the wrenching changes attendant on German reunification.
The situation is full of ironies and paradoxes. For 45 years, the Poles looked on Soviet troops as an unfriendly occupying force. Now Poles see the same troops as protection against resurgent Germans. The Soviets in East Germany and the Americans in West Germany not long ago thought it would be a good idea to go home. Now they think it might be a good idea to stay a while longer. So the two erstwhile antagonists are cooperating, in a manner of speaking. (This was contemplated at the end of World War II, but the Soviet-imposed division of Germany prevented it.)
Thus, there are things for the military to do in the post-cold war world, but there aren't as many of them nor are they as glamorous as the services would like.
Not since 1945, when we began an unprecedented economic boom, have we had such a chance to reallocate national resources. Never have we had a greater budgetary incentive to do so. The question is whether we have the political will and leadership.