REPUBLICANS and Democrats do not agree about much, least of all in the foreign policy area, but on one key point they seem to share the same delusion: that America's national security interests are best secured by preparing for an unending series of conflict with ''rogue states'' in the Middle East and Asia.
Seemingly unable to live in a world devoid of major enemies, US leaders have characterized a number of third-world states as rogues and outlaws, existing outside of the ''family of nations.'' Such states -- notably Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea -- are said to support terrorism or radical insurgent forces, to seek weapons of mass destruction, and to violate various international ''norms.'' To defeat these states in war, the United States is now spending some $260 billion per year on its military.
The designation of rogue states as America's paramount foreign enemy began under the Republicans in 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. To justify high levels of military spending in the absence of a credible Soviet threat, President Bush and his associates adopted a ''regional strategy'' based on periodic clashes with emerging third-world powers. Ironically, Mr. Bush decided to announce the new strategy in a speech scheduled for delivery on Aug. 2, 1990 -- the very date selected by Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait.
The Iraqi invasion lent enormous credibility to the new strategy and enabled Bush to elicit congressional support for an offensive campaign in the Persian Gulf. Following the Gulf war, the Department of Defense adopted a military posture designed to provide the US with the capability to fight two Iraq-like powers simultaneously. Known as the ''Base Force,'' this capability required a standing military of 1.6 million combatants, organized into 12 active Army divisions, 12 aircraft carrier battle groups, 15 tactical fighter wings, and three Marine Corps divisions.
When President Clinton took office in 1993, he promised to conduct a sweeping review of American military policy and to better equip US forces for the challenges to come. But when his so-called ''Bottom-Up Review'' was completed in late 1993, he unveiled a barely modified version of the Base Force. Although slightly smaller than the force proposed by Bush (1.4 million rather than 1.6 million combatants), the Clinton plan still called for the capability to defeat two rogue states simultaneously. Conceptually, it was nothing new.
Now, the Republicans have promised yet another review of US military policy. In their Contract With America, the new congressional leadership asserts the need for rigorous scrutiny of the Clinton plan. But nowhere do they propose a reassessment of the two-war, anti-rogue posture that underlies that plan; rather, they suggest that perhaps America is not spending enough money to implement it fully. They are worried, they say, because the Clinton plan ''contained unrealistic financing for the established goals.''
This is all well and good, but what the American people need to know is not how many tanks and missiles to throw at the rogue doctrine, but whether it is valid at all.
What is needed is a comprehensive assessment of the world security environment and an open-ended discussion as to what military policy would best advance US interests. Such an assessment would examine the threat posed by the so-called rogues, but also look at other possible threats to US security. And it would allocate defense resources in a way best designed to protect US security.
In looking at the rogues, moreover, we should be realistic about their true capabilities, not blinded by inherited feelings and stereotypes. Of the five most frequently named rogues, only North Korea has an army comparable to that fielded by Iraq in 1990, and that army is opposed by a modern, well-equipped South Korean force of 633,000 (not the puny Kuwaiti force of 16,000).
The others -- Iran, today's Iraq, Libya, and Syria -- have much smaller forces and generally lack the high-tech weaponry once possessed by Saddam Hussein. All of them, moreover, face internal political and economic pressures.
Of greater concern is these states' pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons. All but Iraq are thought to possess some chemical weapons, and Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are known to have sought nuclear munitions. But Iraq's chemical capability was considered of no strategic consequence during the Persian Gulf conflict (due to effective US countermeasures), and the Iraqi and North Korean nuclear programs have been halted through war or diplomacy. And Iran, according to Defense Secretary William Perry, is ''many, many years'' away from developing a nuclear weapon.
While these states will require continuing attention from US leaders, there is no evidence they could ever mount the sort of attack that would call into play the $260 billion per year military force favored by both Republicans and Democrats. Defense against the rogues could be achieved with a smaller military at lower cost.
The anti-rogue strategy was adopted in haste after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reached its zenith during the Persian Gulf conflict. But now, in a dramatically changing world, we need a fresh look at US security policy. The Republicans would serve America best by questioning the concepts underlying current doctrine and inviting a free-wheeling public debate on possible alternatives.