Preparing for ’88: Campaigners Must Confront a Declining U.S. World Role

<i> Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly</i>

Political considerations, domestic as well as international, haunt the U.S. military escalation in the Persian Gulf. What happens off Basra and Kuwait will also matter at the U.S. ballot box in 1988.

Excessive bravado in the Middle East could even crystallize a watershed perception of U.S. international overcommitment, both economic and military. This country cannot maintain a role that ranges from playing naval policeman in the gulf to financing much of the defense of Europe and Japan and serving as market of last resort for Third World manufacturers. Signs of reviving U.S. isolationism and economic nationalism are apparent.

In fact, a broader psychological change may already be at work. Whereas a decade ago conservatives were able to indict post-Watergate liberalism for a weak-kneed willingness to abdicate U.S. global responsibility, today’s Democrats offer a reverse thesis--that Reaganite dreams of restoring Eisenhower-era U.S. clout are unaffordable and unrealistic for a country losing its old hegemony.

Recognizing some plausibility here won’t be easy for conservatives nurtured on the America-is-back politics of the early Reagan years. Even a decade ago, the U.S. electorate was showing clear restiveness with embarrassing Vietnam memories. When President Gerald R. Ford in 1975 ordered U.S. warships to sink a Cambodian gunboat, the Mayaguez, polls recorded a 10-point rise in his job approval. Then, in 1977, Jimmy Carter unleashed a political tempest with his unpopular plan to give “our” Panama Canal to the Panamanians. Finally, in 1980, U.S. voters’ anger over Iranians taking our Tehran embassy staff as hostages produced a patriotic backlash that helped elect Ronald Reagan.


Reagan’s accession brought changes--an accelerated military buildup, the 1983 Grenada invasion to show the United States was again willing to use force and successful counteractions against terrorism, culminating in the April, 1986, air strike against Moammar Kadafi’s Tripoli. This is the White House mind set: Pride in America has recovered.

But only in a more limited manner than the Administration believes--and here lies the critical political caveat. From the public’s indignation over the canal treaties a decade ago down to last year’s Tripoli raid, the essence of the new U.S. patriotic mood has been empire-in-decline frustration politics--an isolationist nationalism, not enthusiasm for a Reagan Doctrine restoring America to the international policing obligations of 25 years ago.

Quite the contrary. Low-cost gunboat diplomacy against Caribbean islands and latter-day Barbary pirates is a gratifying national ego-boost. Missile-reduction agreements that reduce U.S. exposure in Europe are also welcome. Very different psychologies are created, however, by far-off risks threatening high casualties without equally high urgencies; protecting the largely Japanese and European oil flowing through the gulf appears to fall in this category.

Besides, even as Americans cheered Reagan’s gunboat diplomacy, the fundamental tides of U.S. neo-imperial power continued to ebb--most voters sense as much. Communist penetration has shifted its focus from Southeast Asia to our own Central American backyard. Pressures are growing for the United States to vacate military bases in Spain, Greece, the Philippines and elsewhere. Even the South Pacific is a staging-ground for neutralism and Kadafi plots.


On the economic front, meanwhile, the United States has been experiencing massive trade deficits while commercial rivals take shelter under Uncle Sam’s defense umbrella; Japan and West Germany, especially, chalk up huge surpluses and capture critical markets. In consequence, America became a net international debtor for the first time since 1917, and now owes more than any other nation. And Japan, whose banks have become the world’s largest, has emerged as our chief creditor--the country whose penchant for savings now finances U.S. domestic and international dissipation.

Feel-good drum rolls notwithstanding, it’s a classic portrait of a declining empire, borrowing to maintain past pride. Now, however, these various circumstances--not just our ebbing ability to play global policeman but also plummeting U.S. ability to afford the guns and holsters--may be on the verge of forcing a critical policy debate for 1988. Overreaching in the Persian Gulf--or elsewhere--could be a catalyst for redefining the politics of patriotism, putting a new premium on toughness- cum -realism in strictly defining U.S. national interests and insisting that our allies assume a greater strategic and economic burden where the interests involved are principally theirs. Admiration for mere righteous truculence could fade--a transformation that ought to make Reaganites nervous.

Doubts cast on global adventurism by the Iran- contra affair are one factor, of course. But the constraints of economics are even more compelling: U.S. policy-makers have reached a watershed in dealing with how long and how much Americans can borrow to recreate past glories. Should we continue to maintain a 1950s-style military presence overseas while taking on international debt at the rate of $150 billion a year? Can we justify keeping an Eisenhower-era umbrella over the national security and commercial interests of Japan and West Germany when those two wealthy nations spend relatively little on defense but enjoy a combined 1986 trade surplus with the United States not far below $100 billion?

The politics of 1988 should make a “yes” answer impossible. Indeed, part of the current controversial U.S. budget deficit rests on the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States lays out to protect the very allies who complain about our fiscal profligacy. Of the $300 billion Washington spends annually on defense, large amounts find their way to Europe and the North Atlantic, to the Persian Gulf and the North Pacific. For example, when a British magazine, the Economist, recently deplored local polls showing Europeans tired of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. presence, the magazine queried whether Europeans would be willing to pick up the tab for America’s $150-billion annual outlay on their behalf. And when the crisis in the Persian Gulf worsened recently, former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. estimated that our regional military presence cost $40 billion a year--yet the oil passing through the gulf goes 60% to Japan, 30% to Western Europe and only 6%-7% to the United States. And because Japan, under its constitution, can only spend 1% of its gross national product on defense, the cost of defending the Pacific--and Japan’s vast commerce--rests on the United States.

Because imbalances like these can’t continue, events in the Persian Gulf--where even the Reagan Administration understands the need for burden-sharing--may prompt far-reaching strategic re-evaluation. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has suggested, only half facetiously, that we send the bill to Europe and Japan, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) has observed that there’ll be hell to pay if Americans die in the gulf to keep Mercedes-Benzes speeding along Autobahns. Many others, including two former national security advisers, have raised the dollar-saving possibility of bringing home some U.S. troops now in Europe. Still others link defense to trade. Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Merced), third-ranking House Democrat, has talked about higher import duties for countries not making adequate defense outlays.

All in all, there’s a good chance that the debate over U.S. overseas military involvement is about to shift away from applause for the low-budget overseas adventurism that helped Americans forget the embarrassments of the 1970s in Vietnam and elsewhere. That was yesterday’s trauma. Over the next few years, voters may cheer a new politics that promises to spend U.S. dollars and lives only on behalf of more narrowly defined U.S. interests, while demanding rich allies share more of the Western burden. It’s a prospect that unreformed White House saber-rattlers should take seriously.