• U.S.

Four Troublesome Hot Spots

11 minute read
George J. Church

Though foreign policy was not the strong suit of President Reagan’s first term, to put it gently, the Administration’s performance improved a bit toward the close. Relations with NATO allies grew closer after a tendentious start; an agreement with the Soviet Union to resume arms-control talks took a * bit of the chill off relations between the superpowers. Nonetheless, the Administration closed its first four years with a decidedly mixed record, its modest successes balanced by such failures as the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon and the inability to sell either Israelis or Arabs on Reagan’s 1982 Middle East peace initiative. A brief survey of the globe’s most contentious issues and places as the President opens his second term:

THE SOVIET UNION. Not just arms talks, but the entire strategic relationship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could soon be vitally affected by a simple fact of nature: age. It is not just that Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko, like Reagan, is 73, but that, quite unlike Reagan, he is ailing. What is more, Chernenko’s age is not at all unusual in the top leadership. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the voice of the Kremlin at international conferences for decades, is 75, though apparently in good health. Newly appointed Defense Minister Marshal Sergei Sokolov is 73; Premier Nikolai Tikhonov is 79. Sooner or later, they will have to give way to less familiar faces; the process, in fact, may already be under way behind the Kremlin’s walls.

The man U.S. Kremlinologists are watching most intently as a potential successor to Chernenko is Mikhail Gorbachev, 53. He deeply impressed his British hosts last December with his relaxed, authoritative manner during an official visit; at times he already seems to be talking and acting like No. 2. Gorbachev’s closest rival appears to be Grigori Romanov, who at 61 is also a youngster by Politburo standards. Romanov is considered to be more dogmatic than Gorbachev, with strong ties to the defense establishment. If Gorbachev and Romanov cancel each other out in some restrained contest for power, then the favorite choice of the Kremlin watchers for the top spot is Viktor Grishin, 70, now leader of the Moscow Communist Party organization.

Whoever wins out, and whenever the change occurs, U.S. officials charged with deciphering Soviet affairs do not expect any radical departures in Kremlin policy. To understate the case, Soviet leaders do not rise to the top by advocating brilliantly unorthodox ideas. Says one Kremlinologist: “There are no young Turks in the Kremlin waiting to redress the wrongs of previous generations.” But Soviet policy may become less predictable as new leaders relatively unfamiliar to the West acquire authority.

Old or young, the Soviet leaders face daunting difficulties in the worldwide < contest with the U.S. Moscow’s allure in the Third World has faded badly as African governments failed to achieve rapid economic growth–or much sense of social well-being–by following Marxist policies. The U.S.S.R. is still bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war in Afghanistan, of which no end is in sight. Says one Reagan Administration official: “Ten years ago, most insurgencies around the world were directed against the West. Now many of them are against the Soviet Union or its allies.” He has in mind not only the Afghanistan rebellion but the contra campaign in Nicaragua and a struggle by guerrillas against the government of Angola, which is being propped up by as many as 30,000 Cuban troops.

Relations with allies are if anything more vexing for the U.S.S.R. than for the U.S. This is particularly true of Poland. The Polish Premier, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, is determined to keep the country Communist. But he must contend with a deeply religious people for whom the Roman Catholic Church is more a symbol of national identity than is the government, and an outlawed Solidarity leadership has been brilliantly successful at keeping protest alive. So far, Jaruzelski has been performing his high-wire balancing act with great skill, at some cost to Communist orthodoxy: the current trial of members of the secret police for the murder of Government Critic Father Jerzy Popieluszko is unprecedented in any Communist state. Poland’s dilemma seems to defy resolution: it is almost as difficult to envision Jaruzelski’s calming his turbulent nation as it is to foresee Moscow’s letting Poland slip out of the Soviet camp. That is simply inconceivable.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Kremlin’s many frustrations will make either its present or its future leaders any easier for the U.S. to deal with. The effect could be exactly the opposite. In any case, the U.S. has little leverage that it can exert. Speaking of the Soviet leadership jockeying, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Kremlinologist at Washington’s Brookings Institution, says bluntly, “There is nothing the U.S. can do about this.”

CENTRAL AMERICA. The Reagan Administration views the Sandinista government now running Nicaragua as a group of Soviet-allied Marxists, and fears that consolidation of the Sandinistas’ hold on Nicaragua would pose a deadly danger of leftist revolution spreading not only to neighboring Central American countries but eventually even to Mexico. Washington’s strategy to prevent that has been to sponsor the anti-Sandinista contras, with the avowed aim of putting pressure on the Sandinistas to stop exporting revolution. U.S. diplomats claim some success. Asserts one: “This (Sandinista) government is in trouble. It has gone 180 degrees from preaching ‘revolution without frontiers’ to saving its own revolution.”

Maybe, but the Reagan policy is also in trouble. Congress, acting out of moral qualms about what many of its leaders see as an effort to topple the Nicaraguan government, cut off additional U.S. funding for the contras last June. Though the contras have managed to continue their campaign, it seems most unlikely that they can fell the Sandinistas even if American financing is resumed. And if the Sandinistas consolidate their power despite the contras, what then? Short of outright American military intervention, U.S. officials see only bleak alternatives. One is to accept the Marxist government, and Washington is in no mood to do that. Last week the U.S. put off talks with the Sandinistas and walked out of World Court hearings on a Nicaraguan suit against the U.S. for its support of the contras. The other alternative is to support Nicaragua’s neighbors in an effort to “contain” the Sandinistas; that effort might have to continue for decades.

In El Salvador, U.S. hopes are pinned to President Jose Napoleon Duarte. After winning in a free election last year, he moved cautiously but firmly against El Salvador’s notorious death squads and opened negotiations with Nicaraguan-supported leftist rebels while continuing to wage war against them. But Duarte faces strong opposition from right-wingers who deplore both his reform plans and negotiations with the rebels; the rightists hope to win a majority in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly in March, and some U.S. analysts think they have a chance. If Duarte falls or is rendered ineffective, prospects for defeating leftist revolution look grim.

THE MIDDLE EAST. The perpetual Arab-Israeli crisis simmers as always, and the U.S. seems to have no new ideas for resolving it. Even if it did, the pullout of American Marines from Lebanon last year so damaged U.S. prestige in the region that experts believe Washington’s ability to play a significant diplomatic role has been severely undercut for the near future. Israel too is planning to pull out of Lebanon; it announced last week that it would begin a phased withdrawal of its troops from the southern part of the country that could be completed in nine months (see WORLD). In effect, Jerusalem is conceding that its 1982 invasion failed to bring any stability to the area. Israel prefers for the moment to concentrate on its domestic economic problems, notably the inflation that at one point last year hit annual rates as high as 1,260%. That means the problem of the Palestinians on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has been shoved even further onto the back burner: an act of faith is required to believe that it will remain quiet.

The Iran-Iraq war, meanwhile, has dragged into its fifth year, exhausting both countries and inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties. In the latest phase of the war, neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf has been attacked. If either side should carry the war to the entire gulf, it would put at risk more than half the world’s proven oil reserves. The U.S. might be forced to intervene.

Terrorism is an ever present menace that is certainly not confined to the Middle East, but it is probably most virulent there, spurred as it so often is by religious fanaticism. The U.S. is increasingly a target; witness the three suicide bombings in Lebanon that have killed 260 Americans. Secretary of State George Shultz has been campaigning publicly for a more vigorous American response to such attacks, including retaliatory or even pre-emptive strikes on terrorist groups. But should he manage to establish that approach as U.S. policy, and so far he has not, the key to repelling terrorists would still be better intelligence about their identity and activities. That would take years to bring about.

AFRICA. Across a wide arc south of the Sahara, the continent is plagued by drought and famine. Economic development has virtually ceased: many already poor countries are suffering declining growth rates if not widespread starvation. Grisly as it is, this situation offers the U.S. a chance to help itself diplomatically by acting on its best humanitarian instincts. The U.S. already provides more than half the emergency aid needed to feed Africa’s hungry millions, a trend that has not gone unnoticed. For example, Mozambique, still officially a Marxist nation and once heavily dependent on Soviet aid, “has slid away from the Soviets,” in the words of Sonnenfeldt, and become friendlier to the U.S.

The Reagan Administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa, however, has touched off bitter and growing controversy. The policy aims at encouraging the white South African government to ease its oppressive racial policies by behind-the-scenes pressure rather than public denunciation. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Wisner claims some success; he notes that “South Africa and black Africa are talking to each other” and sees some easing of apartheid within South Africa. But the country has been racked by black protests, backed up by demonstrations in the U.S. American liberals and some South African blacks charge that the Reagan Administration is in effect supporting a racist government that is undertaking only cosmetic reforms aimed at strengthening rather than loosening apartheid.

Whatever happens on the substance of foreign policy, 1985 will be a year of heavily symbolic anniversaries. Some are unhappy, signifying American defeat or continuing dilemmas. The U.S. will scarcely be inclined to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon in April, or the 40th anniversary of the Yalta Conference next month. However little the outcome was intended, at least by American negotiators, that conference led to the division of Europe between Western and Soviet blocs that plagues international relations to this day.

Some other symbols are more hopeful. The 40th anniversary of V-E day in May recalls not just victory but the start of an era of, if not exactly peace, then at least avoidance of global conflagration. Least noticed, but especially significant now, is the 30th anniversary, also in May, of the Austrian State Treaty. That pact, signed after years of patient negotiation between superpowers who were still experiencing the tensions of the cold war, set up Austria as an independent nation from which both the U.S. and its allies and the Soviets withdrew their troops; it demonstrated that for all their hostility, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. can reach enduring agreements in their mutual interest. If they do not, yet another upcoming anniversary will surely underscore the possible consequences of failure: August marks the 40th year since atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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