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Reflections on the Present Danger

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not a trivial event, and it has serious implications, even if one does not agree with President Carter’s belief that they “could pose the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.” From the viewpoint of power politics and of the superpower rivalry, the Soviet move is qualitatively different from previous Soviet actions. In the past thirty-five years the Soviet Union has used force outside its own borders only in order to maintain the empire carved out by the Red Army in Eastern Europe—an empire whose legitimacy was never endorsed by the United States, but which we have accepted de facto, and failed to challenge even when we had overwhelming nuclear superiority.

In the rest of the world, and particularly in the “gray areas” of the Third World where the Soviets and the West have been competing for influence, the Soviets have never before used their own troops in combat: force has been the tool of their proxies, such as North Korea in 1950, or the Cubans in recent years. It is true that Afghanistan, as we were recently reminded here, had long been the object of Tsarist Russia’s attention and attempts at control.1 But if the Soviets should feel entitled to occupy every region which old Russia had tried to dominate, Finland could easily be next, and surely this is not a precedent we ought to accept without reacting.

Moreover, the strategic position of Afghanistan, and the timing of the invasion, do raise serious problems for the US. From Afghanistan, the Soviets are in a much improved position against America’s only remaining ally in that part of the world, Pakistan—a state which is also China’s only friend there; and they are more able either to intimidate a shaky and unstable Iran, or to support an eventual pro-Soviet regime there. The Soviets do not need Mr. Carter’s warning to know that any attempt on their part to cut off navigation in the straits of Hormuz would be an act of war. But in a war, their new position makes cutting off the West’s and Japan’s oil supplies easier. No American government can behave as if these perils did not exist.

From the viewpoint of world order, the Soviet move is just as ominous. There can be no moderate or livable world without a firm principle against aggression. Such a principle is often hard to apply in cases where borders are uncertain or border violations by both sides have been occurring for a long time. This was not the case in Afghanistan. The rebels who were fighting the pro-Soviet regimes may have received outside help (which served as the pretext for Soviet intervention); but it was clear that their success was caused primarily by the Amin government’s repressiveness and by the earlier Taraki regime’s mistakes. It is hard for the society of states—many of which are weak indeed—to accept the idea that a superpower has the right to turn a neighbor into a client by a coup, to invade the country when it gets unhappy with the local leader, to murder him, and then to pretend that it had been invited by the country’s people or rulers. For the nonaligned nations in particular, and so soon after their conference in Havana, the Soviet move could only appear a brutal and cynical demonstration of contempt. The unprecedented condemnation of the USSR by thirty-four Moslem nations on January 29 suggests how strongly such contempt is resented.

Thus there were many reasons to react strongly. But how one reacts, and where one goes from here, cannot be entirely dictated either by emotions or by facts. Emotions can be dangerous (and unsteady); facts are ambiguous. Reactions and future policy must be guided by assumptions about Soviet motives and intentions. And here we enter a very murky realm. It is murky, in the first place, because of uncertainty. Did the Soviets move only because they felt they had no choice—because the only alternative to invasion would have been the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime and the triumph of the rebels? Were they trying to seal off their large Moslem population from the contagion of Islamic reaction? In other words, was it a limited and defensive move, or was it one more brilliant seizing of an opportunity, a swift and deadly way of threatening American and Chinese positions at low risk? Did the Soviets act because they thought that the Western stake in detente would lead us to minimize their violation of it, or because they believed that the US, in recent months, had emptied détente of any real substance?

Did they anticipate the likely retaliatory measures which Washington and its allies would take, or was there an element of miscalculation in their move? It is hard to believe that Mr. Dobrynin, as good a connoisseur of the Washington scene as any, had not informed the Kremlin of the growing influence of the more hawkish section of the American foreign policy establishment, both within the administration and in the public, and of the fashionable view that compares the Soviet Union, with its huge military effort of recent years, to Imperial Germany at the beginning of the century. If the Kremlin had been duly warned yet acted anyhow, what are the implications of such behavior? If the Kremlin did not expect the shift it provoked, what will be the conclusions its leaders will draw from their surprise?

Did the Soviet leaders act, as so many of Carter’s critics assert, because they deemed the US weak, its leadership impotent, because the absence of a strong American reaction to the Cuban adventures in Africa, the episode of the Soviet brigade in Cuba, and the spectacle of America’s inability to move against Iran in the hostage crisis led them to believe that Washington would not react any more strongly this time? (In this case—a very gloomy thought indeed—they would have learned nothing since the Korean War, which ought to have demonstrated once and for all that American leaders, whatever their confusions over drawing lines in the abstract may suggest, react vigorously to an outright invasion out of the blue.) Or did the Soviets act, on the contrary, out of a sense of weakness, a fear that retreat anywhere (even from a few islands wrested from Japan) would lead to the unraveling of the Soviet Empire?

Did they act from a belief that the Americans, their NATO allies who had just rejected Brezhnev’s offers of an arms cutback and decided on substantial nuclear rearmament, and the Chinese were getting ready to encircle and fence in the Soviet Union (whose gains in recent years, so often listed with dismay in this country, were often trivial, or costly, or inferior to Soviet reverses) so that it became even more important to strike at a weak section of the encircling chain? Was this part of a design aimed at catching the “Persian Gulf area” within Soviet pincers, or a reaction to the exclusion of Soviet diplomacy from the Middle East and to the constant weakening of Soviet positions there?

These are murky questions for a second reason as well: because, many would say, the answers do not matter. What matters is only the character, and the results or implications of, the Soviet move. As Thucydides has shown, it is impossible to disentangle what is defensive from what is offensive in a great power’s strategy: preventing the defection of a client may be a defensive motive (remember US actions in South Vietnam in 1963-1965!), but sending huge armies to prevent it appears aggressive. And anyhow, what is defensive to me can be offensive to you: the deployment of the Soviet SS-20 may have been a reply to America’s forward-based systems in Europe and to China’s landbased missiles, but it was felt to be offensive by the West Europeans. And the decision to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, capable of hitting Soviet soil (in addition to the American missiles regulated by SALT II), was deemed defensive by NATO, but certainly not in Moscow.

Moreover, many would argue, it is pointless to wonder whether the Soviets act from strength or from weakness if the only thing that might make them feel less vulnerable is total control over their environment; and nothing is more futile than speculating on Soviet motives or Soviet internal divisions. A strong Western reaction is all to the good, because it will show Soviet hawks that they cannot get away with murder, and it will help whatever Soviet doves there may be, by providing them with new arguments for prudence and restraint.

This line of reasoning, however, is valid only against those who would argue that because of the purely defensive or limited nature of the Soviet move, one should not react at all, or barely. If one believes that a reaction is essential, some assessment of Soviet calculations becomes indispensable. While it is true that we may not be able to evaluate correctly the undoubtedly complex motives and purposes that explain the Soviet action, we must try to make our reaction compatible with the possibility that Moscow has not irrevocably turned to aggression and confrontation, and that we are capable of affecting intelligently the balance of calculations which the Soviet leaders will have to set for their next moves. As Miles Kahler reminds us in his brilliant discussion of the 1914 analogy, if we want to avoid repeating 1914 (out of fear of repeating 1938-1939) we must “reexamine [our] adversaries’ intentions and the sources of their behavior.”2

Not even Mr. Kissinger believes that the Soviets, like Hitler, have a master plan, a blueprint for step-by-step world conquest. The relentless opportunism of Soviet expansion can be affected by one’s own moves: “The possibility of changing the intentions of adversaries” exists. It requires not only strength but also skill and the avoidance of excess. For if weakness only feeds the adversary’s hawks and undercuts the doves, overreaction allows those hawks to gloat that the enemy has once more shown confrontation and combat to be the only possible course; and overreaction discredits the adversary’s doves.

Nothing would be more frightening than a collision between two rivals, one of whom, for whatever reason, and probably in part because of insecurity, blunders into challenging fundamental values or interests of the other, and the second of whom, acting upon a preconceived model of his enemy’s conduct, and out of his own insecurity, plays out self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who compare today’s Soviet Union with Imperial Germany may be right in stressing that Soviet behavior, like the Kaiser’s, may provoke the very encirclement Moscow fears. But many of these, for years, have anticipated a showdown in the Persian Gulf area. They explained that the Soviet Union—a superpower only in its military dimension, and troubled by internal tensions—might try to find external compensation through force. They stated that relative American military weakness in the early 1980s—before MX and the rapid deployment force and the new missiles in Europe—provided Moscow with a “window of opportunity.” These people ought at least to ask themselves whether the invasion of Afghanistan purely and simply vindicates their interpretation, or whether there might not be alternative ones.

The Soviet Union has indeed provided its enemies in the US and abroad with a splendid opportunity to discard whatever shreds of détente remained, and to put into effect the policy of sanctions and strength they had already been calling for. But is this new policy a legitimate and necessary response to Afghanistan, or a response to a vision of the Soviet Union that tells us more about our own recurrent fears than about Soviet strategy? Each time the Soviet Union has moved one pawn in the game of chess, we have tended to see in the move a prelude to a desperate attempt to win the entire hand at poker. We interpreted Stalin’s tactical thrusts in Europe between 1945 and 1948 as steps in an attempt to seize all of Western Europe, and the Korean War as a first stage in a world-wide drive, just as we now talk of a Soviet plan to control our oil supplies.

To be sure, if we are too weak, the exploitation of opportunities by the Soviets may give them the prizes we wish to deny them, as surely as if they had a master plan. But our national obsession with strength may blind us to two vital imperatives: the imperative to evaluate correctly our own predicament and the imperative to think of the long term. A policy that relies on military might alone, because of our view of Soviet strategy, might well make matters worse—or, at best, leave them exactly as bad as they are now.


The policy announced by President Carter in his State of the Union message has two main elements. One is the determination to force the Soviet Union to “pay a concrete price for their aggression,” the other is the establishment of a “cooperative security framework.”

The Soviets have pointed out the contrast between our refusal to “continue business as usual” with them, and their own behavior toward us during the Vietnam war. They provided considerable military help to Hanoi, but went on seeking arms control, economic and diplomatic deals with us. True enough, but the two situations are not comparable. Many of those deals were decidedly in their interest (or, as in the case of the long-sought-after European Conference on Security and Cooperation, at least the Soviets originally thought so). Moreover, the Soviet Union had few means of retaliation other than military assistance to Hanoi (and, let us not forget, world-wide campaigns against America’s war).

Finally, it is much easier for a totalitarian government to practice careful discrimination among instruments of policy. In a democracy such as the United States, “linkage” may be resisted by special interests and bureaucratic agencies, in periods of relative détente, but when waves of indignation sweep the country, what might be called punitive linkage, aimed at penalizing aggressive Soviet behavior (as opposed to the kind of manipulative linkage aimed at inducing moderate Soviet behavior which Kissinger tried to pursue), becomes almost irresistible.

Three questions can be raised about the sanctions decided or envisaged by the US and other governments against the Soviet Union. First, what cost to the “political and economic relationships it values” is likely to be high enough to induce Moscow to revert to restraint, and to deter the Soviet Union from throwing its weight around in other areas at the borders of its empire, such as Finland, Romania, or Yugoslavia? Clearly, the most effective punishment after the invasion would have been military help to the Afghan defenders, capable of preventing full Soviet control and of dragging Soviet forces into an endless and bloody guerrilla war. But the Soviet tactic of sealing off the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and isolating the rebels within a net of Soviet firepower and equipment—i.e., of not allowing them to have sanctuaries abroad—may, even more than the internal divisions or lack of experience of the guerrillas, make such a “quagmire” improbable. Our situation is almost the reverse of the Soviets’ during the Vietnam war: the sanctions we have initiated are a substitute for the relative unavailability of military retaliation on the ground.

Our economic sanctions will certainly disturb Soviet planners, and may marginally aggravate the internal problems which Brezhnev himself bleakly described a few months ago. But the two most serious sanctions will be fully effective only if Washington succeeds in enlisting the genuine (not merely the verbal) cooperation of other states that provide the Soviets with grain and with advanced technology. And while Brezhnev’s détente strategy throughout the 1970s was clearly based partly on his decision to improve the performance of the Soviet economy by importing Western and Japanese technology, the expansion of Soviet power abroad and the growth of the Soviet war machine were not forced to wait until those imports began. Even if one takes into account not just Soviet-American trade but all of the Soviet Union’s trade with the West and Japan, it has not reached a level that puts an end to the relative autarky of the Soviet system. And even if the amount of interdependence were higher, we know that great or even lesser powers have rarely hesitated to endanger such economic relations for essential interests—ideological or strategic.

Not so strangely, the most effective sanctions may not be in the realm of hardware—military or economic goods—but in that of symbols and intangibles. The boycott or disruption of the Olympics would be a serious blow to the Soviet propaganda machine which its leaders would not find easy to explain away. One may deplore politicizing the games, but one must recognize that the Soviets themselves interpret all such events (even the holding of a meeting of the International Political Science Association in Moscow) as a testimonial by the rest of the world to their system.

The condemnation by the UN General Assembly, and in particular by most of the nonaligned states, and the denunciation of the invasion by most of the Moslem states are also serious setbacks to Soviet diplomacy. Those Americans who attacked the General Assembly and its Third World majority when we or some of our allies were the chief targets of draft resolutions now celebrate the importance of the recent shift. They are right now, they were wrong then in simplistically dismissing the UN as a “dangerous place.” Thus one is led to the conclusion that in the absence of effective military sanctions in Afghanistan itself, insofar as the other sanctions are concerned less—i.e., the mere symbolic ones—may be more; and more—the heavier ones—may be less.

This brings one to the second question: aren’t there some sanctions that may be actually counterproductive, and harden Soviet behavior or heighten Soviet paranoia? Here we get to the famous “China card.” We have an interest in developing our new bilateral relations with Peking, and in helping to consolidate a Chinese regime that has turned to the West and to Japan; we even have an interest in giving the Soviets pause, lest their actions precipitate the Chinese-American alliance they dread. But we have no interest in making the Soviets feel that we have passed the point of no return, that they are now confronted with the world-wide anti-Soviet Holy Alliance called for by the Chinese, and that they themselves must therefore decisively switch from their ambiguous and selective version of détente to a strategy of hostile maneuver and breakthrough. To be sure, we have not gone so far yet. But the pressures for going beyond the limited military cooperation we have now initiated with the Chinese will be strong. It is here above all that we must beware of playing out self-fulfilling prophecies and must bear in mind the relative vulnerability of the Chinese should hostilities break out.

If the China card may become counterproductive should it get played more vigorously, the decision to defer the Senate debate on SALT II risks becoming so even sooner. For we have now, in effect, linked the treaty’s ratification to the Soviets’ “geopolitical” behavior, and made of SALT II a sort of reward for good Soviet conduct. Unless the Soviets leave Afghanistan—a most unlikely event—how will the administration justify resubmitting the treaty to the Senate? Moreover, especially in an election year, politicians competing for a pose of toughness and military men eager to reverse past decisions, or to remove past decisions, will keep pressing the administration to go beyond the limits set by the treaty.

Finally, we can’t be sure that in the new cold war climate the Soviets themselves won’t start disregarding those limits. Indeed, it is easy to see why they might, and difficult to understand why so many Americans fail to see that we punish ourselves by shelving this treaty. SALT II allowed us to pursue all the strategic programs we needed or the Pentagon claimed we needed (such as the MX, or long-range air-launched cruise missile, or such weapons not covered by the treaty as the neutron bomb or the Pershing II). But the treaty limited the number of warheads the Soviets could put on the missiles whose throw weight and accuracy were beginning to threaten our land-based missiles, and it limited the number and type of new Soviet ICBM systems, or the conversion of existing launchers. The treaty also made it easier for us to continue shifting from a purely deterrent strategy of “mutual assured destruction” to a limited counterforce strategy (whether this makes any sense is entirely another matter). And SALT II made it more difficult for Moscow to pursue with any confidence the war-winning strategy many experts believe (rightly or wrongly) the Soviets have had all along.

We should have learned from the earlier experience of SALT II the perils of postponement: President Ford’s decision not to go beyond the Vladivostok agreement of 1974 so as not to risk Republican rightwing wrath by signing a treaty in 1976 led to the Carter administration’s disastrous attempt to change course in March 1977. Once the negotiations were back on course, the final phase was delayed by Moscow’s predictable displeasure with our abrupt recognition of the Peking regime. When the treaty was finally ready to go before the full Senate, came the episode of the Soviet brigade in Cuba in which the administration behaved erratically. Once more, the Carter administration has been bad at getting its priorities right.

A third question also stems from the conclusion we had reached about the first. If our “heavier” sanctions are not going to be effective without the support of other states, if the Olympic boycott is likely to be less than decisive unless many other nations follow Carter’s lead, what price is it worth for us to pay in order to twist the arms of others and force them to extort a price from Moscow? The Soviets may have counted on our allies’ reluctance to impose economic sanctions (i.e., to disrupt a trade that is not unimportant to nations all of which count on exports to keep their economic expansion from sagging ever further) and to suspend a détente policy that has either brought them very tangible benefits (as in Bonn’s case) or helped give them some leeway in world politics.

And it is true that our allies’ conduct has not been blameless: there has been, here and there, too much concentration on the short-term benefits of business as usual, too much fear of antagonizing the Soviet Union, too pat an answer to the questions about the scope and motives of the Soviet move (a tendency, denounced years ago by the French political scientist Pierre Hassner, to say that one is reassured precisely because one isn’t), too familiar a belief that Afghanistan is a faraway place of which we know nothing. There is, therefore, much room for an effort at persuasion by the US.

But part of our problem lies in our allies’ doubts about our own steadiness and seriousness: they see—not always fairly—the Carter administration as having swung wildly from excessive complacency to instant and almost hysterical hawkishness. And if we should go to great lengths to force them back into line, we risk confirming their doubts, vindicating Soviet hopes of interallied divisions, and sacrificing long-term coordination to shortterm, artificially produced harmony. We must obtain from our allies foreign-policy positions which they deem to be in their interest, not a series of measures that spring only from their feeling of obligation toward us. It is a matter of devising a common policy even if it isn’t as tough as what we’d prefer, not of getting them to go along reluctantly with what they think is a hurried American policy that may well not be in their interest.

As for the new security strategy in the Middle East, many commentators have already shown the flaws in the president’s message. What is the Persian Gulf area? What is included under attempts by the USSR “to gain control” there? What attempt, where, and by whom would bring about our resort to force? Administration spokesmen have dodged such questions, and one can’t blame them. To be too precise, and to spell out every eventuality is impossible, as well as an invitation to the Soviets to concoct a situation that wasn’t foreseen or included in the warning. But too vague a warning is not much of a deterrent. This is the dilemma in which all attempts at defining aggression have always been caught. Since the president preferred vagueness to false precision, the policy remains to be defined, and the message’s virtue lies in its keeping “all options open.” A sound policy will have to answer two questions.

The first one is: what threats are we facing? The least likely is an Afghanistan-style invasion, by the Russians, of either Pakistan or Iran: outright attack on an ally of the US, or on one of the chief oil suppliers of the West and Japan, would represent an escalation of Soviet risk-taking infinitely greater than stepping into the relative military vacuum of Afghanistan.

This does not mean that one ought not to plan for so improbable a contingency; but it means that we ought not to be obsessed by it, and also that the counter-measures we take are likely to make it even more improbable—and to make the other threats even more plausible. One of these is what is loosely called subversion: Soviet support for a revolutionary faction that will try to seize power in one of the oil-rich countries, or for a separatist movement that tries to break away from an anti-Soviet state (such as Pakistan). The transformation of Afghanistan into a Soviet satellite began with the coup of 1978, and a similar technique has been used in South Yemen. A third threat is subversion or aggression by a Soviet satellite, helped by Soviet arms and advisers (for instance South Yemen resuming attacks against its neighbors).

A fourth threat is the coming to power, in a state of the region, of a regime that is not already a Soviet client or puppet, but that has revolutionary ambitions, sees its main enemy as the US, and turns to the Soviets for assistance—this is the Ethiopian model. In a state as unstable as Iran, if the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic should disintegrate and the duality of Khomeini’s and of the new president’s power should lead to paralysis, it is easy to see how a coalition of leftists and radical nationalist forces that were generally pro-Soviet could come to power—everything else having failed.

There is a fifth threat, which is rarely mentioned yet not unimportant: the threat of an alliance of convenience (not of ideology) between a government that might or might not be leftist and the Soviet Union, because of the existence of a common enemy, and because that government sees the US as the more dangerous of the two superpowers for its own interests. Such an alliance exists between the Soviets and Syria; it used to exist between Moscow and Baghdad (as the links between Iraq and the USSR weakened, the Moscow-Damascus link got tighter). While Soviet actions in Afghanistan, and the very nature of the Islamic Republic, have made a Soviet-Iranian tie of that sort unlikely (by contrast with the possibility of the kind of Soviet-Iranian tie just outlined), there have been signs of a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and North Yemen. There could also be a new partnership of Moscow with Mrs. Gandhi—a revitalization of the Soviet-Indian treaty of 1971, with Pakistan and the US as joint targets. It is in America’s interest not only to prevent Soviet “control” through invasion or subversion, but also to see to it that no important country in the area provides the Soviet Union with a dominant influence over its policies, or with bases, or becomes its diplomatic satellite or proxy.

The second question is: how do we cope with such diverse threats? Clearly, we are more able to cope with some than with others; also, measures aimed at meeting one kind of danger risk aggravating another. Two considerations have to be kept in mind by our policy makers. The first one concerns the limits of military power—a theme that must be reasserted at a time when many Americans return to their love affair with toughness, when many ex-hawks find in the Afghanistan crisis an occasion to erase some of the lessons of Vietnam, and many see in the (relatively risk-free) Soviet expedition a decisive proof of the positive utility of force.

The stationing of American forces in various bases or facilities in the Middle East and the existence of a rapid-deployment army are likely to be an effective deterrent against aggression by a Soviet satellite or against outright Soviet aggression. This is not because these forces could ever hope to balance Soviet might in the area, but because conventional battles in a region of vital importance to the US, such as the Middle East or Western Europe, could jump to the nuclear level—because the aggressor could never be sure that we would accept a conventional defeat without escalation. In other words, the presence of our forces in such an area heightens the risk even for a superior conventional hostile force. And nuclear parity or—if you prefer—the loss of US nuclear superiority does not reduce this risk since the real deterrent is not American nuclear superiority but the danger of the aggressor’s move initiating the journey to nuclear war.

One could also argue that American forces would deter subversion: its instigators could not be sure they would not trigger a violent American response; one can even argue that such an American presence nearby would often intimidate governments that might be tempted, in a power vacuum, to turn to the Soviets.

But might is no panacea. If the presence of American forces in Western Europe and South Korea has preserved peace and the status quo, it is also because of internal strength and prosperity in Europe, of economic development and a powerful anticommunist consensus in South Korea. The circumstances are quite different in the Persian Gulf area. Could American forces prevent the sabotage of oil fields or tankers? It was not the absence of power that plagued the American response during the hostage crisis, but the impotence of power—the inability to cope with certain types of situations with force alone. Force can be useful against an attempted coup d’état; but it is often too blunt a tool against endemic, small-scale subversion, and, on the contrary, too belated and limited a tool against as large-scale and irresistible a revolution as the one that destroyed the Shah’s regime in 1978. We had, after all, 70,000 Americans in the Shah’s Iran, and provided him with a powerfully equipped army.

The best remedies against subversion, or against the fourth and fifth threats I have outlined, are preventive—political and economic. Can American forces stationed in a neighboring country, or even in the country at stake, deter its government from turning voluntarily to the Soviets? If they do not, we’re in trouble, but if we try we shall be branded aggressors or disruptors of civil peace. Can we guarantee a country against itself, or against its regime, and use force to keep it on our course?

Indeed, military might can even be counter-productive. The stationing of our forces in certain regions may drive other areas closer to the Soviets. One argument for an American military presence in, and not merely armed assistance to, Pakistan, is that it would both prove our commitment and reassure India about Pakistan’s intentions, or prevent Pakistan from building nuclear weapons. But are we sure that India would see things our way? Moreover, if our new security offer to the area entails a guarantee against subversion, the presence of our forces in a deeply troubled country, far from acting as a deterrent, may accelerate its disintegration, and involve us in precisely the sort of war we got sucked into in Vietnam.

As the Soviet expedition into Afghanistan itself shows, force is a last resort, used when things have gotten desperate. In a place such as Pakistan, the opportunities for dangerous subversion come from the dissatisfaction of the tribes in the northeast and southeast of the country, and the disaffection of many with the military dictatorship. In Saudi Arabia, the risks lie in the possibility of a fundamentalist revolt against economic modernization, the disruption of traditional values and the corruption entailed by it, as well as in the closed, narrow, and privileged character of the ruling elite. In Iran, economic deterioration and constant turmoil might favor the one group of forces that has not yet been tried—the factions of the Marxist left. Against those perils, the remedies may well be beyond American means, but they certainly do not consist in a blanket American military guarantee of the status quo.

Precisely because of the scope and nature of the perils, a second consideration must be the need not to over-Americanize our policy. One of the problems with a network of bases in northeast Africa and western Asia and with a rapid deployment force is precisely the temptation to use them, not wisely but too often, and to try to return to the role of world policeman. Yet it is pointless to try to defend countries that are reluctant to enlist in our fire brigade, and dangerous to take over the defense of countries unwilling or unable to defend themselves—this we should have learned both from our positive experience in Western Europe and from our disastrous one in South Vietnam.

The Soviet Union threatens, potentially, not merely our and our allies’ oil supplies, but first of all the countries of the Persian Gulf area. The initiative for a “cooperative security framework” ought to come from them, and might well take the form of a coordination of local forces—with assistance from us—rather than that of a huge American presence. There is a germ of wisdom in the French notion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is above all an “East-South” problem, and that the response should in the first place come from the area.

Moreover, to force ourselves on the countries in the region is likely to lead both to rebuffs and to perils. We should remember the experience of the “northern tier,” or Baghdad Pact. Our attempt at building a Middle Eastern NATO failed to attract all the states of the area, helped push Nasser into the Soviets’ arms, and later contributed to the overthrow of a pro-Western regime in Iraq. The more we press, the more we risk deepening the split between those states that put security from Soviet or Soviet-sponsored aggression or subversion at the top of their anxieties, and those that rely diplomatically or militarily on the Soviets against the threat they feel from Israel. It is not in our interest to tighten the links between these states and Moscow. Also, given the fear that states in the first group have of falling victim to popular discontent or to the discontent of their masses of imported (largely Palestinian) workers, and given their resulting desire not to give up at least the façade of Arab unity, even the conservative, pro-American Arab regimes are likely to subordinate their endorsement of our plans for their defense to our willingness to help them resolve the Palestinian problem, which these regimes identify as a major source of Middle Eastern instability, and as a major lever for Soviet influence.

We may try to convince these countries to make resistance to the Soviet Union an absolute priority. But we are unlikely to succeed, both because they experience the Palestinian issue far more deeply than we do, as a domestic and international ordeal, and because even those who want aid and protection from us do not want to become simple satellites of the US. They do not want to expose themselves thereby to the charge of being a superpower’s puppet, indeed the puppet of a superpower whose policy keeps Israel afloat, and the breach between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world unrepaired.

The road to a “cooperative security framework” would pass through a major American effort to go far beyond even the autonomy scheme ambiguously decribed at Camp David for the West Bank and Gaza—a scheme Begin interprets most restrictively anyhow—toward genuine self-determination for the Palestinians. This is a request made even by such “moderates” as the Saudis and the Jordanians, no great enthusiasts of the PLO. But we must also realize that if we end up in too tight an alliance with the more conservative regimes of the area, or with a regime like Sadat’s that seems to other Arabs too tepid about the Palestinians and Arab unity, we risk turning the opposition in these countries—whether on the left or on the fundamentalist right—into rabid anti-American forces, as happened in Iran.

There is another risk involved in over-Americanization. A sound rule is that one ought to enlist the sympathies, or the good will, of the stronger countries in an area one wants to protect. A NATO alliance without Bonn, or London, or Paris (still a member of the NATO Council and a signer of the treaty) would make little sense. To be sure, Saudi Arabia is “on our side”; but for all its oil and money, it is not the most populated or potentially the most powerful state in the region. The other influential nations of the Persian Gulf region are Iraq, Iran, and India. All three now claim to reject the tutelage of both superpowers, notwithstanding the kinds of collaboration that have taken place between Iraq and India and the USSR. It would be foolish for us to build barriers of containment that leave huge holes where those countries are, or with states whose presence in our camp would only exacerbate those countries’ reticence or hostility. An American defense of Pakistan against aggression that greatly strengthens the relationship between Moscow and Delhi is no gain; an American defense of Pakistan against subversion in the face of a Soviet-Indian alliance is no bargain.


Our predicament is complex, and will not be solved by the familiar resort to gunpowder. And a policy that concentrates on present fears and threats at the expense of long-term concerns is of little value. And yet three essential long-term considerations have been given little weight so far.

First, the administration has seized the opportunity provided by Afghanistan to try to restore a foreign policy consensus between the executive and Congress—in the past, Congress has always been more docile when it was told that the country was at (hot or cold) war and, for instance, in need of an increased military budget or of uninhibited intelligence activities. But, as several commentators have pointed out, President Carter has not gone beyond rhetoric in attempting to deal with the issue of oil.

It is true that no amount of conservation and no crash program designed to reduce our imports of Persian Gulf fuel are likely to eliminate our dependence, and our allies’ far greater one, on the resources of that area in the near future. However, a far greater effort than the one entailed by Mr. Carter’s plan of last summer ought to be part of the attempt to protect our “vital interests”—not only by reducing our dependence on a region so marked by turmoil, instability, and the perils of crisscrossing blackmail, but also by reducing our need to beg states such as Saudi Arabia to keep their oil production at levels that are far beyond what it may be prudent for the Saudi regime to extract. For the huge amount of cash obtained by Saudi Arabia, and by the United Arab Emirates, for all that oil may well be the most potent force of social disruption and discontent, the greatest incentive to internal waste and corruption.3

Secondly, the Carter administration’s optimism about the ease with which such “global issues” as nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, north-south economic relations, or conventional arms sales might be resolved in ways pleasing to American values and interests was obviously excessive. The conflict between such global concerns and American strategic ones was never thought through (with the result that in most instances, the case-by-case approach led to the predominance of the latter—as in Iran and South Korea). Nevertheless, it would be a serious error to return to Kissinger’s strategy of geopolitical obsession, subordination of every issue to the Soviet-American conflict, interpretation of every local development according to the yardstick of superpower rivalry, neglect of the autonomy of indigenous factions, and disregard of the authenticity of local revolutionary or nationalist forces. Carter may have been not only too impervious to the conflictive nature of; and to the contradictions between, several of the global issues, but also too confident about the possibility of separating that agenda from the Soviet-American contest.

However, it would be foolish to act as if the global agenda should now be replaced by “Cold War Two.” Nonproliferation remains an important issue: unless we subordinate our aid to Pakistan to a clear commitment by General Zia’s regime, we will set a disastrous precedent and incite India to return to Mrs. Gandhi’s nuclear policy of 1974. The insight that saw in our emphasis on human rights both an effective weapon against the Soviet regime and a hard-headed interest of the US in the non-Soviet or pro-Soviet part of the world (as well as a return to American idealism) remains valid: on our side of the great divide, regimes that violate these rights on a grand scale are dubious allies indeed—either because they are likely to pursue their own interests rather than serve common ones or because they will provide opportunities for upheaval and pretexts for outside intervention. Kissinger’s charge that Carter’s human rights demands “came to be applied largely to allies in a manner that tended to undermine their domestic structure” is not to be taken seriously.4 Any domestic structure that could be undermined by so uncertain and so largely rhetorical a policy was weak indeed to begin with. Here again we ought to be very careful in our commitment to Zia: remember Diem, and remember the Shah.

Third and most important, the new priority given to our policy toward the Soviet Union by an administration that first had wanted to relegate it to second place and the new tough line that has replaced the wavering and contradictory course of 1977-1979 should not blind us to two simple facts. There is no substitute for peaceful coexistence; and it can only be obtained if the Soviet Union is not pushed into a corner or locked into a position of implacable hostility—to quote Kahler again, “the survival of your opponent may save your life.”

There may well be no escape from the contest. As I have argued elsewhere,5 we don’t have a choice between cooperation and competition but between forms of competition; yet it is in our interest to move away as much as possible from a confrontational competition to a cooperative competition. This requires, of course, military strength, but also preventive diplomacy (to reduce Soviet opportunities for gain and the prospect of crises and collisions) and a network of cooperation: because in its absence any clash leads to a major and agonizing confrontation, because there are common interests (especially with respect to the arms race), and because many problems require, for their solution, a modicum of Soviet participation.

One of the “lessons of Afghanistan” is the need for a constant Soviet-American dialogue—in order to avoid surprises and miscalculations, to reduce misunderstandings between two states that are most unlikely to develop complete confidence in each other’s political processes and strategies, and whose very sense of mission as well as great-power interests condemn them to recurrent expeditions, exercises in projection and displays of insecurity.

A policy aimed at peaceful coexistence requires that in such a dialogue the Soviets be clearly informed in advance of the limits of our self-restraint and of the possible consequences of moves such as the recent invasion. Much evidence suggests that we showed little concern for Afghanistan at the time of Taraki’s coup of 1978—when we still had the Shah as an ally, and a deteriorating relation with Pakistan—and that the administration did not take warnings about Soviet troop concentrations seriously. But such a policy requires also that—as in the Cuban missile crisis—we neither try to humiliate the Soviets nor step over the line that separates justified sanctions from provocations.

We should not accept such blustering and bloated expressions of Soviet interest as the Brezhnev doctrine, or proclamations of total solidarity with sundry forces of national liberation, class fronts, or “progressive” regimes hostile to the US. But there are rock-bottom Soviet interests we ought to respect, in Europe (concerning, for instance, any independent West German nuclear role) or in Asia (the arming of China or a large-scale rearmament of Japan). We must remember that if we step over that line, the Soviets have—especially with their powerful armies—options of retaliation we would not enjoy: in Berlin, or in the relations between the two Germanies, or in the treatment of Eastern European satellites, or in Rumania, or in the Middle East (with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict), or in the Far East (where they may choose to teach the Chinese a lesson if the Chinese try to teach one again to Vietnam).

We have, until now, managed our direct confrontations with Moscow reasonably well. But a return to a universal cold war would be both deeply dangerous, given the state of the superpowers’ armaments in the 1980s, and full of difficulties, in a work that is far more complex and less ready to accept the superpowers’ dominance than the world of the late 1940s and 1950s. Extended periods of peace come to an end not only when a state deliberately provokes a general war but also when the great powers’ willingness to compromise or even to sacrifice some interests to peace has been eroded by too many crises.

These misgivings, musings, and caveats, to be sure, are likely to infuriate decision-makers eager to affect, however frantically, an air of decisiveness and leadership. The function of statesmen is to define policy the role of concerned citizens is to question, to wonder, and to warn. We must find a better way for mankind than a simple choice between 1914 and 1939.

January 30, 1980

French Intellectuals and the Olympics

The statement printed in part below was issued in Paris on January 24 and signed, among others, by: Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, Simone Signoret, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The signers said they “condemn the premeditated military aggression of the USSR against Afghanistan. They are much concerned about the possibilities of similar acts of aggression taking place in the future against such a country in Asia or in Europe. They wish to make it clear that with some exceptions French politicians and statesmen have preferred to ignore, or half excuse, or even to justify this aggression.”

The signers pointed out “that human rights are being treated with greater and greater scorn in the Soviet Union; that so prestigious a person as Andrei Sakharov, who had until recently been spared, has now been attacked. In this situation, they demand that both government and sporting authorities not issue to the Soviet Union the certificate of good conduct and of moral legitimacy that its government hopes to obtain by holding the Olympic games in Moscow.

“Years ago refugees from Germany as well as members of the Jewish community in the USSR mounted protests against the Olympic games in Berlin on grounds that they conferred a dangerous legitimacy on Hitler. And during the past two years most of the Soviet dissidents have taken positions against the Olympics being held in the capital of the USSR. The signers therefore firmly demand the boycott of the Olympic games and call on their fellow citizens to speak out on this question.”

  1. 1

    Firuz Kazemzadeh, in The New York Review of Books, February 21, 1980. 

  2. 2

    “Rumors of War: The 1914 Analogy,” Foreign Affairs, December 1979, pp. 374-396. 

  3. 3

    See the long article by Youssef Ibrahim in The New York Times, January 28, 1980 (pp. 1 and D5). 

  4. 4

    Wall Street Journal, January 21, 1980, p. 18. 

  5. 5

    “Muscle and Brains,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1979-1980, pp. 3-27.