WASHINGTON — Political considerations, domestic as well as international, haunt the U.S. military escalation in the Persian Gulf. What happens off Basra and Kuwait will also matter at the U.S. ballot box in 1988.
Excessive bravado in the Middle East could even crystallize a watershed perception of U.S. international overcommitment, both economic and military. This country cannot maintain a role that ranges from playing naval policeman in the gulf to financing much of the defense of Europe and Japan and serving as market of last resort for Third World manufacturers. Signs of reviving U.S. isolationism and economic nationalism are apparent.
In fact, a broader psychological change may already be at work. Whereas a decade ago conservatives were able to indict post-Watergate liberalism for a weak-kneed willingness to abdicate U.S. global responsibility, today's Democrats offer a reverse thesis--that Reaganite dreams of restoring Eisenhower-era U.S. clout are unaffordable and unrealistic for a country losing its old hegemony.
Recognizing some plausibility here won't be easy for conservatives nurtured on the America-is-back politics of the early Reagan years. Even a decade ago, the U.S. electorate was showing clear restiveness with embarrassing Vietnam memories. When President Gerald R. Ford in 1975 ordered U.S. warships to sink a Cambodian gunboat, the Mayaguez, polls recorded a 10-point rise in his job approval. Then, in 1977, Jimmy Carter unleashed a political tempest with his unpopular plan to give "our" Panama Canal to the Panamanians. Finally, in 1980, U.S. voters' anger over Iranians taking our Tehran embassy staff as hostages produced a patriotic backlash that helped elect Ronald Reagan.
Reagan's accession brought changes--an accelerated military buildup, the 1983 Grenada invasion to show the United States was again willing to use force and successful counteractions against terrorism, culminating in the April, 1986, air strike against Moammar Kadafi's Tripoli. This is the White House mind set: Pride in America has recovered.
But only in a more limited manner than the Administration believes--and here lies the critical political caveat. From the public's indignation over the canal treaties a decade ago down to last year's Tripoli raid, the essence of the new U.S. patriotic mood has been empire-in-decline frustration politics--an isolationist nationalism, not enthusiasm for a Reagan Doctrine restoring America to the international policing obligations of 25 years ago.
Quite the contrary. Low-cost gunboat diplomacy against Caribbean islands and latter-day Barbary pirates is a gratifying national ego-boost. Missile-reduction agreements that reduce U.S. exposure in Europe are also welcome. Very different psychologies are created, however, by far-off risks threatening high casualties without equally high urgencies; protecting the largely Japanese and European oil flowing through the gulf appears to fall in this category.
Besides, even as Americans cheered Reagan's gunboat diplomacy, the fundamental tides of U.S. neo-imperial power continued to ebb--most voters sense as much. Communist penetration has shifted its focus from Southeast Asia to our own Central American backyard. Pressures are growing for the United States to vacate military bases in Spain, Greece, the Philippines and elsewhere. Even the South Pacific is a staging-ground for neutralism and Kadafi plots.
On the economic front, meanwhile, the United States has been experiencing massive trade deficits while commercial rivals take shelter under Uncle Sam's defense umbrella; Japan and West Germany, especially, chalk up huge surpluses and capture critical markets. In consequence, America became a net international debtor for the first time since 1917, and now owes more than any other nation. And Japan, whose banks have become the world's largest, has emerged as our chief creditor--the country whose penchant for savings now finances U.S. domestic and international dissipation.
Feel-good drum rolls notwithstanding, it's a classic portrait of a declining empire, borrowing to maintain past pride. Now, however, these various circumstances--not just our ebbing ability to play global policeman but also plummeting U.S. ability to afford the guns and holsters--may be on the verge of forcing a critical policy debate for 1988. Overreaching in the Persian Gulf--or elsewhere--could be a catalyst for redefining the politics of patriotism, putting a new premium on toughness- cum -realism in strictly defining U.S. national interests and insisting that our allies assume a greater strategic and economic burden where the interests involved are principally theirs. Admiration for mere righteous truculence could fade--a transformation that ought to make Reaganites nervous.