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An 'East of Suez' Debate to Define U.S. Commitments

November 22, 1987|Geoffrey Kemp | Geoffrey Kemp, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was special assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs from 1981 to 1984

WASHINGTON — During the mid-1960s, Britain's poor economic state, including a massive balance-of-payments deficit, forced reassessment of its worldwide defense commitments. Britain decided it could no longer afford to maintain a major military presence "East of Suez" while fulfilling its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and maintaining an independent nuclear force.

There are similarities between that dilemma and the position of the United States today. It has taken a crisis on Wall Street and fear about war in the Persian Gulf to focus attention on the growing gaps among U.S. resources, defense budget and overseas commitments.

The time has come for the equivalent of an "East of Suez" debate in the United States. America must decide where its overseas military priorities lie, how much it is prepared to pay for them and what to do should cuts be made.

For almost two centuries, favorable geography and abundant resources enabled the United States to avoid the "guns or butter" decisions most major powers face. When its hemispheric isolation ended with Pearl Harbor, the United States entered a new phase that culminated with its emergence as a superpower with military and economic resources far exceeding other nations'. As long as this continued, it was possible to exercise global power despite periods of intense debate about the size of defense budgets, the wisdom of specific weapons programs and foreign policy crises such as Vietnam.

Vietnam forced the United States to rethink military strategies based on deploying ground forces in Third World conflicts. The Nixon doctrine provided arms and other technological inputs while local countries provided the manpower. Although the United States finally withdrew from Southeast Asia, it almost immediately increased naval deployments to the Indian Ocean. Now, as new commitments loom in the gulf, Philippines and Central America, and become tests of U.S. credibility, it is possible to see how America could again be drawn into a land war. This comes as the United States faces increased military opposition in all conflict regions, a massive trade imbalance and a federal deficit of historic and dangerous proportions.

As a result, there is confusion as to the nature and extent of America's global role--whether the United States is prepared to use significant military power to sustain commitments.

The problem is that reducing commitments is more difficult than cutting the defense budget. It also goes against the grain for a superpower, as President Jimmy Carter found out when he proposed pulling troops out of Korea--and then had to change his mind. There are always good reasons not to withdraw. The United States should negotiate with the Soviets for long-term reductions in global forces, not give away bargaining chips by unilateral action. Similarly, the United States should not reduce U.S. forces in Europe, the gulf or East Asia until its allies are prepared to take up the slack.

But the United States doesn't have the luxury to wait until all circumstances are favorable. For instance, what does the U.S. government do if the Philippines erupts and we have to commit more forces there to protect our investment in Corazon Aquino? Or what happens if Central America explodes with an intensified Nicaraguan conflict? Even the new, expensive 600-ship U.S. Navy cannot be everywhere. The seriousness of the dilemma is highlighted in the gulf region, where the United States now has 45 ships deployed. Although the additional costs of this operation are fairly low--between $1 and $2 million a day--they could escalate quickly if Iran attacks a U.S. ship.

What can the United States expect its allies to do to compensate for U.S. withdrawals? In the foreseeable future, the United States cannot expect them to make contributions to South Korea, the Philippines and Central America. But this is not the case with NATO and the Middle East. Here the Europeans are increasingly willing to take a greater share of responsibility. The United States should encourage them to work within the revitalized West European Union to establish a parallel set of European defense ventures within the NATO framework. The U.S. government should be pleased that Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium now have more warships in the gulf than America does and West Germany, for the first time, has deployed naval forces to the Mediterranean.

Provided America does nothing precipitous and U.S.-Soviet relations continue to improve, working together with Europe to redefine burden-sharing need not change the alliance's dynamics, even though the process will be painful.

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