Conventional wars could come in all sizes; if we value our freedom, we must be able to defend ourselves in wars of any size and shape and in any region where we have vital interests. That means developing urgently a better ability to respond to crises far from our shores, and to stay there as long as necessary.
—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, May 5, 1981
Except for a brief period during the final agonizing phase of the Vietnam war and shortly thereafter—when the long-forgotten Nixon Doctrine, which dictated exactly the opposite of the above statement, held sway—the foreign policy summed up by Caspar Weinberger has pretty much been the basic foreign policy of the United States. This goes all the way back to the late 1940s when the strategy of military support for threatened friends and allies around the world was adopted.
Just exactly what interests are vital, meriting military intervention for their protection? This never has been made clear. To be sure, there has been a strong moral factor in this term—the desire to keep our friends and allies free and independent nations. There also has been an economic factor—the belief that the downfall of certain friendly nations can lead to severe economic consequences for ourselves. But these two factors have not been absolutes; they are to be assessed relative to the moral and economic consequences of going to war. These consequences can be severe indeed.
The Vietnam War, fought to defend vital interests in Southeast Asia, produced more than 200,000 casualties, including almost 50,000 deaths. The taxpayer burden has exceeded $400 billion. The costs in domestic misery and divisiveness, while incalculable, were enormous.
Yet the loss of our vital interests in Southeast Asia has not so far produced any truly calamitous national effects. Although held to be vital, our interests in this region obviously were not.
Which brings us to Lebanon. It is claimed by some that the withdrawal of the US Marine contingent threatens a loss of credibility for US policy objectives in a region where our vital interests are at stake.
And indeed, the US presence in Lebanon was a part of a far broader Mideast role—which allegedly is to protect indisputably vital interests in this region. So vital are these interests held to be that the government has announced a willingness to take the United States to war—even to use nuclear weapons—to preserve them. But, again, these most vital interests are not absolutes; their preservation must be balanced against the costs and risks of going to war to preserve them.
Fortunately, cool heads seem to have prevailed recently in decisions over Middle East policy. President Reagan withdrew US troops from Lebanon rather than risk becoming more deeply mired in a no-win imbroglio. And, while proclaiming that the United States could not allow a local war to shut off the flow of oil from the Gulf area, the president has wisely not taken steps to involve the United States in the "holy" war between Iran and Iraq.
Middle East oil is often proclaimed to be in our vital interests—but is it? Most Middle East oil supplies Europe and Japan, not the United States. The flow of oil from the Middle East may be considered by the Japanese and Europeans to be in their vital interests, but it is not vital to the United States. However much private US interests would like to see the oil flow—interests with heavy investments in European or Japanese industry, interests that can apply pressure to have public resources expended to protect their private interests—there is no vital US interest.
The Soviets are maintaining a growing military presence in the Middle East and now have overall nuclear superiority pertaining to conflict in this area. The Pentagon has estimated that a conventional war between the United States and the Soviet Union over Persian Gulf oil could cost US taxpayers at least a trillion dollars a year—at least 10 times the value of the oil pumped each year. Add the sacrifice in American blood and societal trauma back home, and one is compelled to ask, On what conceivable grounds would such a war be in our vital interests?
Even if, after a long conventional struggle, we began to push Soviet forces out of the Gulf, during which period the oil flow certainly would have ceased, there are no grounds for assuming that the Soviets would abandon their military objectives without first using nuclear weapons. They hardly have developed them for the purpose of non-use.
Clearly, our most vital interest in the Persian Gulf is to stay out of war there. If withdrawing the Marines has cost us our credibility for defending the Gulf, maybe we should count our blessings.
Vital interests has for much too long been an unchallenged catchword used by the government to muster public support for military adventures, most often encouraged by private interests. Even when those adventures fail, the government seeks support to protect still more "vital interests." We would be far better off to stop justifying actions in terms of vital interests and to direct our attention to our dangerously flawed foreign policy of military intervention, which is working increasingly against our supreme national interest: our survival.
Sam Cohen and Joseph Douglass are strategic-military analysts.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: "Vital" Interests".