It's a common failing to seek the easy way out, even at the price of dependence on others. All too often, we fail to add up the true cost of such dependence.
Take the case of nuclear power. Each time the Price-Anderson Act comes up for renewal, officials of electric utilities and insurance companies troop to Washington with dire claims that unless Congress continues to limit their liability for accidents, all nuclear power plants will be shut down. Congress always buys this plea for subsidy, disregarding its consequence: the reduction of insurers' and utilities' incentive to employ the very best safety and human-factors technology.
In foreign affairs a similar con-game is pulled off successfully year after year by our wealthy European and Japanese allies. "You must continue to spend $100 billion a year defending us," they wail. "Otherwise, the Soviets will take us over." And a bamboozled Congress goes along, even though 38 years have now elapsed since these countries were defenseless victims of World War II's destruction. As long as Congress continues the subsidy, our allies will be happy to accept it. Yet the longer they remain dependent, the harder it will be for them to build up their own defenses when our taxpayers finally call a halt to the subsidies.
The cause-and-effect relationship between US defense aid and the NATO countries' military weakness is increasingly being acknowledged. But the existence of such an effect—of help that hurts—is seldom appreciated in discussions of other regions of the world. Yet the Persian Gulf and Central America provide evidence of precisely the same phenomenon.
US military analysts conjure up a nightmare scenario of Soviet troops in Afghanistan sweeping across Iran in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini's death and gaining control of the Strait of Hormuz—the channel through which all Persian Gulf tankers must pass. This threat is the principal reason for creation of the Rapid Deployment Force and both Carter's and Reagan's pledges to intervene.
But consider: Are US military analysts the only people who can see this threat? Would the Iranians, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Iraqis really acquiesce in Soviet control of the Persian Gulf? Of course not. So why aren't they, themselves, arming to the teeth to guard against such an event? With their oil money, they could certainly afford to.
The answer is quite simple. Like the nuclear industry and the NATO governments, why should they spend their own money when they can frighten their rich uncle into spending his instead? By maintaining a facade of independence—for example, by refusing to permit US bases on their territory and by taking occasional arms aid from the Soviets—the Persian Gulf states can obtain the best of both worlds: freedom from overt US control, but Uncle Sam's ultimate security guarantee.
The price of this guarantee is appalling dependence. To begin with, it is not at all certain that US taxpayers or members of Congress would permit this country to go to war over the Persian Gulf—especially when the odds would overwhelmingly favor the Soviets, unless US forces used nuclear weapons. But to the extent the guarantee is believed, it prevents the development of true defenses—such as building the Gulf Cooperation Council into a military alliance.
We can see the same thing happening in Central America. Despite its unpopular strategy of destroying the country's economic base, the Salvadoran guerrilla movement seems to be gaining ground. Why? The Salvadoran military lacks the morale and will to fight effectively. Hoover Institution researcher Robert Wesson points out that the more the United States tries to direct the conduct of the war, the more the Salvadorans will see themselves as pawns in a superpower battle and be disinclined to fight.
In sharp contrast, the Guatemalan antiguerrilla effort has largely succeeded—and without any US military aid. Under Gen. José Efrain Rios Montt, the military abandoned its earlier policy of wiping out suspected guerrilla sympathizers and embarked on its "roofs, tortillas, and work" campaign. By setting up local village militias and helping peasants rebuild their war-ravaged farms and villages, the army has undermined the guerrillas' support. El Salvador's military could have done the same. But with the crutch of substantial US aid, it has attempted a brute-force firepower approach that has so far been an abject failure.
Ironically, much US aid to Central America is positively harmful. There is no way members of Congress and the aid bureaucrats can know what is best for those countries. US attempts to force the breakup of large farms, to spell out specific human-rights policies, and to force negotiations with guerrillas have a devastating effect on the self-respect of Central Americans, coming as they do from a country with a long history of sending in the marines and backing dictators. And for the CIA to support a Nicaraguan opposition led by members of Somoza's hated national guard, while hindering the efforts of democratic guerrilla fighter Eden Pastora, sends precisely the wrong message about US ideals of freedom.
But if our government does nothing, won't Central America go Communist? Once again we must ask: Can we be the only people who perceive this threat? Despite their revolutionary rhetoric, the Mexicans don't want a revolutionary Soviet ally on their doorstep. Neither do democratic Costa Rica and Venezuela. Were Uncle Sam not throwing his weight around, the oil money of Mexico and Venezuela would probably be directed toward implementing last year's San Jose Declaration, which calls for removal of both Cuban and US troops from Central America.
Our government should not be attempting to pick winners and losers in Central America—or anywhere else. Nor should it be discouraging private citizens' aid to genuine freedom fighters like Eden Pastora. If it has any role to play at all, it is to prevent direct military threats to this country—like Soviet bases—from being established.
We've learned long ago that government has neither the moral right nor the knowledge to intervene in nations' economies. It has no business interfering in their internal political and military affairs either—and for the same reasons. The longer we attempt to "help" in this manner, the weaker will be the recipients of our aid.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Help That Hurts".