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Play the Sea-Lanes Game, Pass Go, Save Assets, Collect Choke Points

June 28, 1987|Tom Bethell | Tom Bethell, a media fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing editor to the American Spectator, once served in the Royal Navy.

PALO ALTO — The recent Iraqi attack on the U.S. Navy frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf, taking the lives of 37 sailors, again raises questions about ends and means of U.S. foreign policy. Do we really need a 600-ship navy? The tragedy in the gulf suggests that conservatives, perhaps without realizing it, have managed to impose on the national psyche a subliminal board game that might be called "Sea Lanes." It goes something like this:

First there are "strategic minerals," always said to be "vital." Include oil among them. The object of policy is to transport these minerals to your home port, without "interdiction." En route are hazards. The minerals must be shipped through "sea lanes," along which lie the dreaded "choke points." Worst of all, there is the specter of the Soviets finally getting their "warm-water port," sought (we are always told) "since the time of the czars." If your strategic minerals are blocked in a choke point, you lose the game.

I have attended anti-communist conferences where this or something much like it is played. Great maps are unfurled, red arrows appear thrusting against one another (choke points), "strategically vital" regions appear threatened (there's barely a corner of the globe that has not been called "strategically vital" at these conferences) and at some point the worst happens: "Warm-water port" or "choke point" trumps "strategic mineral." Then what? You guessed it. Defense spending must be increased. And so it goes.

My impression is that many liberals are intimidated by all this (afraid of being labeled soft on communism), in much the same way that conservatives have been intimidated by talk of compassion, the needy and the homeless.

President Reagan played "Sea Lanes" when he returned from the economic summit in Venice. He defended further U.S. military expansion into the Persian Gulf and the flagging of Kuwaiti tankers by saying, "If we don't do the job, the Soviets will." We would thereby "abdicate our role" as a naval power. The Soviets would "move into this choke point of the Free World's oil flow."

I hate to poke fun, but this analysis really does belong in the 18th Century. It dates from a time of freebooters and buccaneers, when merchantmen were insecure on the high seas even though the countries they sailed from were not at war. It was hard to catch these ships on the high seas, but there was always peril at choke points. Reagan's thinking comes from the play-book of Horatio Nelson--or perhaps Horatio Hornblower. It has little to do with today's world economy. What are the Soviets supposed to do? Run up the Jolly Roger and board supertankers like pirates? Divert them to Vladivostok? No one ever spells out exactly what is supposed to happen, precisely because we would all then see the implausibility of the underlying premise: Ships away from home port are up for grabs and can be seized without triggering a more general conflict--otherwise known as war.

But let's assume the worst, anyway. The Soviets seize all the oil coming through the gulf and ship it to the Soviet Union. Then what do they do with it? What they already do with their surplus oil: Sell it on the world market for the world market price. This might actually reduce the oil price. We, in contrast, have been burying some of this oil at unused salt domes in Louisiana. This strategic reserve, now over 500 million barrels, may not ever be retrieved; squirreling it away merely drives up the oil price. Only a rich country can afford such a strange policy. The Soviets by contrast are poor.

Now I would like to go even further down the path of heresy. Let's "offer" the Soviets their czarist dream outright: a warm-water port in Iran. In fact, let's "offer" them Iran in toto. Conservatives seem to think that the only reason why Iran hasn't already been swallowed up by Gog and Magog to the north is because we have stoutly resisted such a move. But think about it. The Soviets have struggled for seven years with Afghanistan. Imagine on top of that trying to cope with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his myriad fanatics eager to die for an Islamic cause.

If I were President I would be tempted to pull a reverse Br'er Rabbit and "invite" the Soviets into Iran. (You would think something like this might be appealing to Reagan in view of his recent humiliation in that region.) "Mr. Gorbachev," I would say, "You want a nice warm-water port? Perhaps we can make a suggestion. Meet Mr. Khomeini. I'm sure you'll find him most accommodating." Then I would turn to Khomeini and say: "You're sick of the Great Satan? We understand, after everything that has happened. We're going to say goodby now. But there's someone else who would like to do business with you. Meet Mr. Gorbachev, and have a nice day."

Two birds with one stone.

Conservatives are like a football team that only learned to do one thing: block. When you mention communist expansion, few can come up with anything more creative than: Block that communism! And I hasten to add that I think a communist takeover is the worst possible fate that can befall a country. But can't we give the ayatollah credit for thinking the same thing? When will conservatives learn to throw the ball? Or perhaps a better analogy here, a little jujitsu?

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