Facing the risks

A. M. Rosenthal

March 19, 1993|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE United States is preparing to pare down the military power created by almost a half-century of American strategy and investment and a national lifetime of industrial growth.

Aside from those whose jobs are threatened, most Americans are paying about as much attention as to the peeling of a banana.

The deep reduction of the forces is real change, affecting not just jobs but the destiny and safety of the United States and a good part of the rest of the world.

It could turn out to be the essence of wisdom. It could open new ways for America to strengthen itself at home and abroad. It could also turn out to be the greatest misjudgment since the U.S. disarmed after World War II knowing that Stalin would not be stupid enough to bother us.

Either way, even with the fall of the Soviet Union, it certainly is an interesting time to start down the road, proving either bravery or bravado, which are not the same thing.

Just a few days ago the end came for any faith in present international nuclear "safeguards," as they are amusingly called. North Korea defied the U.S. by pulling out of inspection and heading straight for nuclear military power.

And: Is there anybody who believes Iran is not driving toward nuclear production or that Iraq will not one day pick up where it left off -- or that both might work together?

Plainly, deep reduction opens the country to risks and opportunities. The only person who can focus American attention on both is President Clinton. So far, he has chosen to tell us only the good stuff.

In the interests of all Americans, including the president, the time has come for another Arkansas-type seminar. Mr. Clinton could treat us like grown-ups, by opening himself to sustained public questioning and debate on defense.

The critical question: At what point does the reduction in non-nuclear strength increase the danger of nuclear war, perhaps started by the U.S. itself? That concept was an essential part of the decision to build up America's non-nuclear strength.

Let's assume that the West does not do now to North Korea what it should -- try to take out its nuclear weapon capacity as the Israelis did to the Iraqis in 1981.

Assume that some years from now the North Korean leaders, full of confidence in their nuclear shield, make the mistake again of invading South Korea. They will pick a time when the U.S. is involved in another military crisis -- say the Mideast. Would a U.S. already engaged, with reduced ground forces, facing a North Korean army counted in millions, with nuclear weapons, be able to resist the military "logic" of a nuclear first strike?

And suppose Mideast terrorists make the U.S. a constant target. Suppose the U.S. knows they are sponsored by a state with access to portable nuclear weapons. With reduced U.S. forces could a new Desert Storm be organized as swiftly as the last?

With what coalition? Would reduction make a nuclear strike the answer to the approach of nuclear terrorism?

And this: The possibility that communists will again dominate Russia, and make alliances with nationalists in other former Soviet states, also nuclear, does that make no difference at all in American strategic thinking?

And what is American strategic thinking?

There may be excellent answers to these questions. But we need judgments on risks as well as opportunities, not only from journalists or congressional supporters but from the one man who carries responsibility for our safety, and its conservation.

So far, Mr. Clinton reminds me of an editor I knew, who listened while a recently promoted reporter complained that he had been told all the good things about the big new job, but not the acute drawbacks. Son, said the editor, I figured you would find those out by yourself.

That really is not good enough, not for a man who wants not just to be a good president but a great one.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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