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Choosing Proxies in the East-West Duel

February 16, 1986|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown.

With more emphasis and enthusiasm than before, President Reagan has again pledged America's "moral and material assistance" to opponents of the Soviet Union and its proxies in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua.

No other aspect of Reagan foreign policy is more controversial. True believers assert that it is past time for the United States to take the offensive against Soviet-backed regimes. For the first time, Third World insurgencies are challenging the position of the East rather than the West. The United States can and must support struggles for freedom. In the process we can shift the East-West correlation of forces and hasten the demise of the Soviet empire.

Before the retort begins--the charges of "cold warrior" and "Neanderthal"--it is worth asking: Why not take on the Soviets? For years they have had free run in supporting so-called wars of national liberation. They have not scrupled at providing weapons to almost every enemy of the United States. There is no inherent reason that the United States should not support the use of violence to try reversing political decisions favorable to the Soviet Bloc that were reached through military power.

Such a revision in U.S. foreign policy--the Reagan Doctrine--does require a psychological leap; we've never looked at the world this way before. Yet the adjustment will be easier if we focus first on Afghanistan, where most Americans do favor support for anti-Soviet insurgents. From U.S. involvement in that conflict, there is no leap of principle to embrace the contras in Nicaragua or Jonas Savimbi in Angola.

Yet here the argument must pause for breath. The Reagan Doctrine must also be measured against its costs in each and every situation. For example, supporting insurgencies costs money; it also costs lives. The latter may be limited to "foreigners" in Cambodia, a distant nation that elicits little American compassion. But if badly conceived or executed, U.S. support for insurgencies also can cost American lives. This is the nightmare of Nicaragua if the U.S.-sponsored contras fail, but draw in American combat forces.

We must also count the cost in diplomacy. It may be that supporting Savimbi's forces is unlikely to damage broader relations with the Soviet Union or risk confrontation. There would also be value in teaching a lesson to Fidel Castro's expeditionary corps. But we pursue these marginal East-West gains in Angola--still far from materializing--at the cost of sowing confusion about our stance in the region and abandoning the moral high ground.

The Reagan Administration has quietly weaned Mozambique, a neighboring Marxist state, from Moscow. It has modified its failed tactic of constructive engagement in South Africa, which caused no change in apartheid but alienated black Africa. Yet it now risks its diplomatic gains by aligning its Angola policy with that of Pretoria. Pyrrhus won such a victory.

Applied with more fanfare than circumspection, the Reagan Doctrine can also complicate matters in the Western alliance. In Europe, revival of U.S. support for Savimbi seems a mystery. Anti-Soviet crusading in the Third World seems an imitation of the U.S. approach toward central East-West issues that bedeviled transatlantic relations throughout Reagan's first term.

The allies' faintheartedness cannot be entirely dismissed. But Europeans have deeper concerns, most pressing in the case of Central America: that Reagan rhetoric on the Soviets in Nicaragua will lead the United States to divert attention from the Atlantic alliance, risk prospects for detente in Europe, and make the Soviets appear more successful than they are. Indeed, by choosing to overemphasize Moscow's role in Central America, the Reagan Administration has increased the cost of failure. In the President's words, the stakes in the four Reagan Doctrine countries are now no less than "a great moral challenge for the entire free world." This sentiment has few takers abroad.

A price must also be paid at home. Each effort to support an anti-Soviet insurgency must be clearly in our national interest (Afghanistan meets that test); otherwise, Washington wraps itself in partisan acrimony over distant events and is distracted from larger concerns. Further, by crystallizing a disparate set of ventures into a doctrine, the Administration raises doubts about its overall judgment.

In the afterglow of the summit at Geneva, the Reagan Doctrine also gives hostages to the right in the process of appeasing it. If we see the Soviets as misbehaving in the Third World but do not beat them, if the Soviets persist despite Reagan's efforts to forge a businesslike climate in East-West relations, then even he could face political trouble from trafficking with the devil on arms control.

U.S. interests are unlikely to be served by reflexive opposition to the notion of aiding anti-Soviet insurgents. But beckoning opportunity must not become license for taking leave of good sense. The Reagan Doctrine needs more thought before action.

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