A new 'Red Menace' scam

Leslie H. Gelb

April 02, 1993|By Leslie H. Gelb

WITH the Cold War won and gone, you thought you had heard the last of pols and policy experts using the Moscow menace to justify excessive military spending. Think again.

Many in Washington are now arguing that if Russian hard-liners topple President Boris Yeltsin, they'll unearth their old military Frankenstein, quickly charge him up and dispatch him once again to terrorize the world.

The chances of the "bad" Russians being able to do this by the end of the century are, to be charitable, remote. Russia is in the poverty pits, and its military is in near-total disarray. It will take many years for even the nuttiest Russian nationalists to put the Monster together again.

Yet the argument about the new Russian threat goes largely unexamined in Washington for a very unusual reason: Conservatives and liberals both find it very useful, for very different ends.

Legislators, especially conservatives, love the argument because it gives them a brand new way to defend the defense budget and preserve jobs. Conservatives also like to feel muscular, just in case.

Liberals and moderates, especially in the Clinton administration, embrace the argument because it's the easiest way to sell increased aid to Russia. They want to save Yeltsin (don't we all?) and are prepared to do so the old-fashioned way -- by scaring the wits out of Americans.

It's fine for Washington power brokers to warn about coming gas pains over Russia's foreign policy. The pains are already evident places like the Balkans and Iraq.

They will grow more severe as conservatives amass power in Moscow and force Yeltsin to assert traditional Russian interests. And if hard-liners actually take over, things could get tense in the United Nations and elsewhere.

But such foreign policy disputes are a far cry from military confrontations. In the first place, there's a good deal of evidence that many Russian military leaders desire good relations with the U.S.

And those looking for trouble would have a hard time making it. Air and naval crews can't train for lack of fuel. Draft-dodging has reached pandemic proportions.

Much of the equipment from the old Red Army has been dispersed among the 12 new states of the ex-Soviet Union. Troops are far more concerned about a place to live than a war to fight.

As for nuclear weapons, there is a worry that Russian hard-liners might not carry out arms reduction treaties already signed. But let's not be crazy. Even these guys wouldn't dream of starting a nuclear war.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin, no dove himself, seems perfectly aware of the mountains Russian hard-liners would face. "The Warsaw Pact is gone -- there's no way that Humpty Dumpty's gonna be put back together again," he says. "The former Soviet Union is broken into lots of republics -- there's no way that's gonna be pulled back together again."

Yet he and others in the administration are now starting to hedge on future U.S. defense cuts, even though they know quite well that the U.S. could gear up for battle far faster than Russia.

And everyone in the administration from President Clinton on down continues to drive home the argument that Mr. Yeltsin's political demise would require the U.S. to spend billions more on defense.

This help-Yeltsin-or-else argument is not only a gross exaggeration; it's self-destructive.

If Mr. Yeltsin fails or falls, Mr. Clinton will end up in a political trap he is setting for himself. Having cried wolf, he will have to forsake his precious domestic priorities and throw extra dollars at the Pentagon.

Most likely, he will be forced to keep the dumbest weapons, namely nuclear arms, just to show he's tough. He's already deferred decisions to cancel nuclear attack subs and to cut back President Bush's missile defense programs.

And by hedging his nuclear bets he's bound to provoke the very nationalistic reaction in Russia he seeks to avoid. Russian hawks will use his hedges to scare up support for their own military demands.

The American people don't need phony arguments about new Russian military threats to justify more aid to Boris Yeltsin. They are quite smart enough to support democracy in Russia for its own sake -- unless Bill Clinton is foolish enough to convince them otherwise.

Leslie H. Gelb is a columnist for the New York Times.

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