Post-Afghanistan Foreign Policy


The decade has dawned with a brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With planes, tanks, 90,000 troops, and a hand-picked dictator, the Soviets are proceeding to occupy and subdue the country, despite the valiant resistance of "rebel" groups who had been on the verge of ousting the previous Communist regime.

Whatever else the invasion does, it should put to rest the naive notion of the USSR as a basically peaceful State whose foreign policy is characterized by defense of its territory and traditional sphere of interest. We have given this revisionist view the benefit of the doubt throughout the past decade—in the face of accumulating evidence for a contrary view, namely (1) the unprecedented Soviet arms build-up and (2) the increasingly bold use of Cuban troops as proxies to carry out Soviet aims in various parts of the globe. But surely now the myth of "peace-loving, defensive" Soviet foreign policy can be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Does recognition of that reality require a return to the Cold War? Certainly that is what many prominent people, both conservative and liberal, seem to be urging. Yet a knee-jerk return to being policeman of the world, to supporting any dictator who claims to be anticommunist, to manipulating the internal policies of other countries to prop up or install "pro-American" leaders without popular support, is not an appropriate policy for a country professing a commitment to freedom.

The purpose of the US government is to protect and preserve the rights of Americans. In foreign relations this means that it must defend the United States and its citizens against aggressors. It is expressly not the role of our government to save the world for democracy or liberty, however worthy these causes are. That task would amount to usurping its foremost duty and is impossible, to boot.

Where the real problem occurs, however, is in defining precisely what constitutes a legitimate defensive foreign policy. It will simply not suffice to say—as some libertarians are wont to do—that noninterventionism means no military alliances, no overseas bases, no actions outside US borders. While satisfyingly straightforward and seemingly principled, this view simply ignores the complexity of power relationships that exist in a world of armed-to-the-teeth superpowers.

What, then, can a libertarian perspective predicated on realistic defense in today's world suggest? While a complete analysis is obviously beyond the scope of an editorial, several guidelines can be drawn.

First, as discussed on this page last month, a basic need is to maintain an adequate strategic capability so as to remain invulnerable to Soviet nuclear blackmail. This should be accomplished in the short term by maintaining and modernizing existing nuclear deterrent forces while sparing no effort to develop true defenses against ballistic missiles for the longer term.

Second, as part of the recognition that it is tax money that is (at least for the foreseeable future) paying for defense, we must insist that American citizens cease being taxed to pay for the defense of our wealthy European and Asian allies.

Third, the US government should stop playing Mr. Nice Guy in the face of naked Soviet aggression. How much willingness to stand up to the Soviets or their proxies can we expect the Pakistanis or the Yemenis or the Angolans to display when the US government treats the Soviets as just another government? What possible justification can there be for our government providing credit, insurance, and other subsidies to shortsighted firms to sell grain, trucks, and computers to the Soviets? And what an obscenity it would be to go forward with the Moscow Olympics as if blood were not flowing in the streets of Kabul! The government should use every diplomatic and propaganda means at its disposal to isolate the Soviets from the community of civilized people—not just for a few months, as Jimmy Carter is now attempting, but for as long as the Soviets continue their overseas aggression and subversion (by proxy or otherwise).

Beyond these means, are there any other actions or policies that legitimately constitute defense—without becoming self-defeating entanglements in other people's quarrels? Such moves generally must be developed on a case-by-case basis, depending on knowledge of the particular, shifting power relationships in different parts of the world. One cannot simply assert that a Soviet takeover of Afghanistan—or of Iran or Pakistan, for that matter—threatens the security of the United States. Such connections must be demonstrated, and some feasible means of influencing the situation must exist, before military action of any sort would ever be justified.

Then, too, there are many means short of military action that can contribute to a legitimate defense policy. Where genuine groups of freedom fighters exist, in opposition to a regime that is a threat to the United States, it is perfectly legitimate to come to their aid—diplomatically; by allowing them to purchase weapons; perhaps even by giving them weapons. Whether the Afghan rebels constitute such a group depends on the larger question whether the prevention of a Soviet takeover could be shown to be a component of defending the United States.

Lastly, though military alliances have earned a bad name and are fraught with the risk of entanglements, there is no reason to reject them categorically. Carefully entered into, for limited time periods and with no commitment to support in any way the domestic policies of the other parties, such alliances can play a role in curbing the aggressive tendencies of governments like the Soviet Union's. Right now some sort of limited tactical alliance with the Chinese government certainly seems worth looking into.

All this is a nasty business, in which formula thinking is dangerous. If the isolationism of "fortress America" would suffice to defend this country and promote peace, we'd embrace it unhesitantly. But, sad to say, the world has changed drastically since two oceans provided America's real security. The challenge of the '80s—for libertarians and other advocates of freedom—is to figure out and implement a defense policy that is in accord with the harsh realities of a world in which other governments care not a whit for liberty and show it with brute force.