The Military Panacea

October 13, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- Haiti and even Iraq, for all the personal tragedies they entail, are foreign affairs sideshows. Even Iraq's strategic position with respect to the Persian Gulf's oil production affords it little more than a nuisance role in world affairs.

The world's industry already gets along without Iraq's oil. Seizure of Kuwait's will not be tolerated, as the United States is again demonstrating, but even that would be of surmountable economic consequence. There is simply a lot of oil on world markets, and those who produce it -- whatever their political character or aggressive ambitions -- have to sell it.

A more perplexing long-term problem for American foreign-policy makers lies farther south. Saudi Arabia is the principal Arab oil producer, but its social and governmental structures are totally unadapted to contemporary circum- stances, and they are beginning to crack.

The country is run by the royal family, largely in their personal interests. The government imposes upon its subjects a religious orthodoxy and cultural-social repression irreconcilable with the secular, liberal, hedonistic and materialistic values set loose in the country by its world economic role, the Western education of its elites and modern communications.

But, despite certain recent Washington utterances meant to distance the United States from some of what has been going on, we are tightly bound to this monarchy. There is an analogy in this to Iran's condition under the shah (and to America's situation with respect to the shah). In other words, there is no military answer.

The problem, however, is that the United States now has trouble producing solutions other than military ones. Its policy in the entire Gulf region was fundamentally military even before Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to Kuwait's frontier, including pre-positioned stocks and programs of military exchanges and joint training meant to produce political as well as military results.

Our Haitian policy, meanwhile, rested on the American military's good relations with Haitian generals, until the latters' coup d'etat deposing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Nonetheless, policy today is military in execution, if not formation, a matter of a huge invasion deployment on the one hand and Gen. Colin Powell's assurances to the generals of honorable treatment on the other. The continued American engagement in Haiti -- and there will be one -- will undoubtedly be assigned to the Army and Marines to carry out.

This reliance on military solutions not only follows from a lack of political imagination in Washington, and the State Department's lack of political clout, but reflects the popular trust Americans place in the military, as the one presumably uncorrupt element in a government otherwise widely portrayed as an unproductive burden upon the citizenry.

The Pentagon has also become the main government actor in America's economy. Since the onset of the second World War, when military spending ended the Great Depression and put the country to work again, the Pentagon has provided subsidy and direction to America's heavy and high-technology industries. This has been the American version of industrial policy. Other countries have state industrial policies, but their military establishments do not run them.

This now is a problem. Since the end of the Cold War, the American military budget has shrunk in real terms, or at best remained stable, and the real military threat to the country has dwindled. But the Pentagon has difficulty reducing its arms spending while keeping its force-level commitments intact because high-technology research and production costs steadily rise.

Thus, one privately published European analysis argues that in the effort to justify its budgets and its standing in public priorities, the Pentagon in recent years has committed itself to a series of increasingly difficult, even unrealizable, high-technology projects for which there is neither a realistic mission in today's circumstances nor the money for operational deployment.

The most dramatic case was the Star Wars program of the 1980s, but there have been others since, such as the B-2 stealth bomber, the F-18 and F-22 advanced fighters and the abandoned A-12 attack aircraft. The analysis asks if America's military-industrial system is capable of halting this flight into irrelevancy, since that's the way it justifies its existence.

Some Republican critics of President Clinton contend that his administration has gutted America's military forces so they no longer have the stocks, transport, infrastructure and training to carry out their missions should they meet real opposition. There is something in this reproach, but it deserves to be addressed to America's military leadership, which has set these priorities.

However, both Republican and Democratic administrations must be criticized for having allowed this situation to develop. The use of military influence, threats, deployment and action has become the privileged instrument of American world policy. It is a strange development for a country that for the first century and a half of its existence took pride in its lack of a permanent military establishment. At a time when the United States has no serious military rival, it is also a dangerous situation.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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