Return to Fortress America?

Evidence accumulates that there is a revival of the controversial pre-World War II defense doctrine called Fortress America. It envisaged a world in which the United States could be secure even if everybody else went up in flames. Those who thought that strategy had died in the cold war may now have cause to reconsider in the light of recent actions by Congress.

This time Fortress America comes with an anti-Chinese bias. Congress has reiterated its support of the program to build an antiballistic missile (ABM) system, a modified version of President Reagan's "star wars" proposal. This was the notion that we could build a network of radar and missiles that would intercept and destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Inexplicably, the Clinton administration also supports the program. The Chinese as well as the Russians think we want the ABM so that we can attack them without worrying about a counterattack.

In addition, the Senate defeated the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This action was not aimed at China, but it is a part of building Fortress America. If we have an impregnable shield against nuclear attack, we don't need to be concerned about the development of nuclear weapons by others.

In pledging to deploy antiballistic missiles and in opposing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has allied himself with Fortress America despite his protestations of internationalism.

Neither the House nor the Senate loses an opportunity to infuriate China about Taiwan. The House International Relations Committee has approved a bill called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. Among other things, the bill would require annual reports to Congress on the administration's plans to defend Taiwan.

In the Senate, the nomination of retired Admiral Joseph Prueher as ambassador to China triggered more cries to bolster Taiwan's defense. Some senators worried that, as Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire put it, Mr. Prueher was "lax on planning for the defense of Taiwan" in his former post as commander of US forces in the Pacific.

For China, Taiwan is the most sensitive issue. For Taiwan, the only threat comes from China. Thus, any help for Taiwan's defense would be aimed at China. Nothing could inflame the Chinese more. One thing that upsets them about the ABM is they see it as a shield for Taiwan - as do some US planners.

Recently there have been two developments that give Congress an opportunity to reconsider the direction in which it has been heading. Early indications are not promising. An elite Defense Department panel has made a report listing all the things wrong with the Pentagon's program to develop an ABM. This could provide a welcome excuse to abandon the project.

But no. The ABM has taken such root among Republicans on Capitol Hill that Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi argues that the threat from such nations as North Korea justifies steaming ahead, notwithstanding expert warnings that the system won't work.

Hard negotiating in Beijing has provided another chance to get our China policy on course. This is the US-China trade agreement. The agreement itself doesn't need congressional approval; but for it to become effective, Congress must make permanent legislation that now gives China temporarily the benefit of normal trading relations with the US, which is the same tariff treatment other countries receive.

Aside from settling a number of bilateral US-China trade problems, the agreement opens the way for Chinese admission to the World Trade Organization. This, by itself, is a huge benefit to both countries. It would involve China more permanently in the commercial and economic affairs of the world. This in turn would slowly but inevitably moderate Chinese behavior in a number of desirable ways, leading to a more open economy and, we hope, a more open political system.

The test in Congress will be whether long-term benefits can overcome short-term losses plus anti-Chinese biases. It will likely be a close thing with both parties split: Democratic free-traders versus their labor friends worried about losing jobs; Republican protectionists versus their business friends anticipating profits. ABM and trade are key indicators of whether Congress will persist in its path toward Fortress America or whether it will recognize the existence of the rest of the world.

President Truman based his reelection campaign in 1948 on relentless attacks on the "do-nothing Republican 80th Congress."

In a sense the 80th Congress quite unintentionally kept Truman in the White House. Might the 106th put Gore or Bradley there?

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is coauthor of the forthcoming 'National Insecurity: US Intelligence After the Cold War' (Temple University Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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