Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The new US-Soviet agreement banning intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe appears to signal a new period of dialogue and cooperation between the two superpowers. It seems that the intense hostilities of the early Reagan era have given way to a more relaxed and constructive relationship between Washington and Moscow, with leaders of both countries calling for negotiated solutions to a wide range of previously divisive issues.

Unfortunately, this reduction in East-West tension is not accompanied by any noticeable decline in North-South tension — or, to be more precise, in antagonism between the United States and its principal adversaries in the Third World. Indeed, since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, there has been a significant increase in US hostility toward radical Third World regimes. Angola, Cuba, Grenada, Iran, Libya and Nicaragua have either experienced direct military attack by the United States or paramilitary strikes conducted by US-backed insurgents. Such hostility, while usually cloaked in anti-Soviet rhetoric, has acquired a momentum of its own and is likely to persist — even thrive — in the post-INF environment.

Why the special hostility reserved for Third World adversaries like Khomeini or Qaddafi? It surely has something to do with the vast imbalance in wealth between North America and the developing countries, and the fear that Third World insurgency is fundamentally inspired by a desire to readjust that balance in a more equitable fashion. In an unusual 1977 RAND Corporation study that articulated what many policymakers have left unsaid, Guy Pauker warned that the US “faces the possibility of a breakdown of global order as a result of sharpening confrontation between the Third World and the industrial democracies.” This confrontation, he wrote, is largely due to the inescapable fact that “the gap between rich and poor countries is so wide that no solution satisfactory to both sides is likely to emerge.” As domestic pressures in the poor countries continue to mount, “the North-South conflict…could get out of hand in ways comparable to the peasant rebellions that in past centuries engulfed large parts of Europe and Asia, spreading like uncontrolled prairie fires.” Such imagery probably resonates more deeply with public fears and attitudes than does the formulaic anti-Soviet rhetoric of rightwing apparatchiks. As hostility toward the Soviet Union subsides, we can expect that these other anxieties will gain greater political potency.

One can identify a number of previous occasions on which a thaw in US-Soviet relations was accompanied by an increase in US hostility toward radical Third World forces; by the same token, diminished North-South tensions have on occasion been associated with an increase in East-West antagonism. In 1963, for instance, the adoption of a US-Soviet ban on atmospheric nuclear testing coincided with stepped-up US military involvement in Vietnam. A decade later, when US forces began withdrawing from Southeast Asia, Washington initiated a major buildup of US nuclear and conventional forces in Western Europe.

If this pattern persists — and all available evidence suggests that it will — the coming period will see improved US relations with Moscow coupled with an increasingly confrontational stance toward radical Third World regimes. Such hostility is likely to express itself in military action of various sorts, including outright US military intervention in regional Third World conflicts. This trend will not likely be affected by the election of a Democrat as president in 1988. It was, after all, John Kennedy who authorized the US buildup in Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter who initiated the present US military buildup in the Persian Gulf.

All of this suggests that there is a sort of reciprocal relationship between the perceived severity of East-West and North-South hostilities in US military planning. Yet Western security analysts have tended to examine the East-West and the North-South axes of conflict without reference to one another. American analysts usually ascribe a hierarchy of relative importance to the two axes, and invest the East-West rivalry with greater significance than the North-South conflict.

This emphasis on East-West issues appears logical, given the much greater risks associated with nuclear weapons. But North-South conflict has consistently played a more momentous and divisive role in US foreign policy, and has probably had a greater impact on the domestic political environment. Separating the two axes, moreover, obscures the important relationship between the two.

Crusading Rhetoric

Most of the early Cold War crises arose from conflicting US and Soviet positions on the postwar political order in Eastern Europe. With the demobilization of the large US armies after World War II, US strategy came to depend more and more on the use of nuclear weapons to offset the purported Soviet advantage in non-nuclear “conventional” forces. Although atomic weapons were never used in combat after 1945, the world endured periodic episodes of “brinkmanship,” when political leaders bargained on the precipice of nuclear holocaust.

Even in the late 1940s, North-South concerns were not entirely absent from the political-military landscape. Two of the earliest postwar crises — the emergence of a Soviet-backed republic in the northern Iranian province of Azerbaijan, and the civil war in Greece — were largely the product of revolutionary and separatist pressures indigenous to the Third World.

The Greek civil war of 1946-49 played an especially pivotal-role in the evolution of US policy. Although many historians interpret this conflict as a quintessential expression of Cold War hostilities, it actually had much in common with the Vietnam War and other Third World insurgencies. The war-weary American public was leery of involvement in what they viewed as an internal Greek conflict. The Truman administration thus encountered considerable domestic resistance to its plans for aiding the conservative forces in Greece. To overcome this resistance, Truman took the tack of portraying all conflicts in the world — whatever their origin — as manifestations of a global struggle between Western freedom and Soviet tyranny. On March 12,1947, in a speech now famous as the nucleus of the “Truman Doctrine,” the president argued that communist success in any corner of the globe posed a significant threat to American security.

Propelled by the crusading rhetoric of Truman’s address, Congress approved his request for substantial US military aid to anti-communist forces in Greece. Subsequently, in NSC-68 (a secret strategy paper drawn up by Paul Nitze of the National Security Council in 1950), US policymakers amended the Truman Doctrine to allow for the direct use of US forces, not just military aid, in countering Soviet or communist gains abroad.

Most Americans continued to oppose the direct use of US troops in Third World conflicts, but with the fall of Chiang Kai-shek in China, the public mood began to change. Angered by heavy-handed Soviet moves in Eastern Europe and alarmed by the communist victory in China, many public figures began to call for a more vigorous struggle against “international communism.” This commitment was soon put to the test. On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed into South Korea in what appeared to be naked communist aggression against a US ally.

Although many troubling aspects of the Korean crisis were not examined closely at the time (including considerable evidence that the South Korean government provoked the conflict), Truman immediately ordered US forces to counter the North Korean attack. When the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict, thereby introducing a significant risk of nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, senior US leaders balked at further escalation and chose instead to fight a conventional campaign restricted to the Korean Peninsula. The resulting bloody stalemate on the ground provoked considerable discontent in the United States.

In the wake of the frustrating Korean conflict, President Eisenhower adopted a “New Look” defense posture which relied on the threat of “massive retaliation” (with atomic weapons) to deter Soviet gains in the Third World. For the next half-dozen years, East-West issues dominated the military landscape as Eisenhower presided over a major buildup of nuclear forces. Only at the end of his tenure, with the Lebanon intervention of 1958 and the accompanying “Eisenhower Doctrine,” did the US assume a direct military role in a regional, non-nuclear conflict.

As the 1950s drew to a close, several US strategists began to question the logic of Eisenhower’s “New Look” posture. These dissidents, led by General Maxwell Taylor, charged that massive retaliation was an inappropriate and ineffective response to the many low-level military challenges facing the United States around the world. Taylor proposed a “credible” strategy of “flexible response,” entailing the aggressive use of conventional forces to combat non-nuclear adversaries abroad.

Senator John F. Kennedy embraced Taylor’s views and pledged in his 1960 presidential campaign to mount a more vigorous US military response to “communist probes” in the Third World. After his election, Kennedy named Taylor his advisor for national security affairs, and “flexible response” became the theme for a massive buildup of Washington’s conventional and nuclear forces. Kennedy placed special emphasis on the development of forces for “counterinsurgency” — that is, for the defeat of revolutionary guerrilla upheavals in the Third World.

Vietnam Syndrome

At first, Vietnam was regarded merely as a “proving-ground” for counterinsurgency. Before long, it turned into something rather more significant. Once Washington designated Vietnam as a test case for counterinsurgency, it became essential for the United States to avoid defeat, lest America’s failure in Indochina encourage revolutionaries elsewhere to undertake guerrilla campaigns of their own. Washington’s “credibility” as a counterrevolutionary power was put on the line, and thus it became more and more difficult to contemplate retreat. When the US counterinsurgency effort collapsed in the wake of the Diem assassination in 1963, Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson dispatched more and more troops to Vietnam in a futile effort to defeat the Vietnamese revolution.

In the wake of Vietnam, US citizens and policymakers sought to impose tight restrictions on US military involvement in Third World conflicts. These restraints included abandoning conscription, reducing substantially US military aid to shaky regimes, and banning the extended deployment of US troops abroad without Congressional approval (the War Powers Act).

In response to these restrictions, US strategists assigned the primary counterinsurgency role to selected “regional gendarmes” — Third World regional powers like Iran, Indonesia and Brazil. At the same time, the US military establishment sought to regain public support by stressing the danger posed by Soviet forces in Europe, a familiar threat whose exaggeration would arouse little public indignation. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter commenced a major buildup of US nuclear and conventional forces in Western Europe — a buildup that included the medium-range nuclear missiles to be eliminated under the INF treaty. With the Soviet armored threat in Germany again the preeminent focus of US war planning, “counterinsurgency” nearly disappeared from the Pentagon lexicon.

Some dissident US strategists criticized this “post-Vietnam” military posture as a “retreat” from global power. In particular, they warned of a mounting threat to Western control over foreign sources of energy supplies and strategic minerals, coupled with growing political and social unrest in the Third World — threats which they believed required a direct US military response. To overcome the public’s continuing resistance to such a response, these critics portrayed all North-South disputes as instances of aggressive Soviet expansion in the Third World.

In 1979, the pendulum began to swing back to the North-South axis in response to three critical events: the fall of the shah, whose departure from Iran eliminated a crucial “pillar” of the Nixon Doctrine; the emergence of revolutionary governments in Nicaragua and Grenada, heralding a new wave of guerrilla upheavals in Central America and the Caribbean; and the Iranian hostage crisis. In response, Jimmy Carter initiated a new buildup of US interventionary capabilities. This buildup, authorized by the NSC in June 1979 and commenced shortly thereafter, included the activation of the Rapid Deployment Force, the acquisition of new “basing arrangements” in the Middle East, the deployment of a permanent naval flotilla in the Indian Ocean and preparations for revival of the draft. Although adopted prior to the hostage crisis, these initiatives were announced only in January 1980. In his State of the Union address, the president inaugurated the “Carter Doctrine” with his pledge to use US military force to protect Western interests in the Persian Gulf. The Reagan administration subsequently accelerated many of these steps, but initial credit should be given to Mr. Carter.

If there is one initiative that can be wholly credited to President Reagan, it is the policy of supporting (in the case of Nicaragua creating) anti-communist guerrillas to overthrow pro-Soviet regimes in the Third World. This “Reagan Doctrine” has found substantial Congressional support with respect to US intervention in Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia, though popular opposition has created obstacles in the case of Nicaragua.

At this point, it appears that the pendulum has nearly completed its swing from an emphasis on East-West issues to an emphasis on North-South issues. If the INF accord is followed by protracted negotiations on additional arms-control measures, and if Gorbachev remains in power, we can expect a continuing thaw in US-Soviet relations.

None of this, however, is likely to have much impact on the tempo or temper of US interventionary activities. There has been no slowdown in the naval buildup in the Persian Gulf, and no evidence of a softened US position regarding such adversaries as Libya, Iran and Angola. Congressional opposition to any increase in spending on Star Wars and other nuclear programs must be set against enthusiasm for a significant expansion of non-nuclear “conventional” forces.

If history provides any clue, the current US buildup on the North-South axis of conflict will result, sooner or later, in full-scale US military intervention in some regional Third World conflict. This was the case in 1950, under the Truman Doctrine, and in 1963, with the triumph of counterinsurgency doctrine. Today we have a choice of doctrines to lead us into war — the Carter Doctrine with its commitment to the protection of Persian Gulf oil, and the Reagan Doctrine with its pledge to support anti-Soviet insurgents. The Pentagon is ready with its own doctrine of “low-intensity conflict,” which endorses a US military response to a wide variety of Third World perils.

Doctrines of Intervention

North-South issues — particularly issues raised by US military involvement in regional Third World conflicts — have regularly dominated the strategic agenda and shaped the public mood since World War II. All five of the postwar political-military “doctrines” — those bearing the names of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter and Reagan — concerned US intervention in the Third World. The prominence of these North-South issues appears to contradict the common wisdom that the East-West axis constitutes the dominant paradigm of US security policy.

What accounts for this? First, there is the tendency of any large organization to perpetuate itself even when the conditions for its emergence no longer prevail. The mammoth US “national security” state will conveniently manufacture urgent reasons for its expansion on the North-South axis of conflict when the East-West axis appears less threatening. If the current rapprochement between Washington and Moscow results in a diminished requirement for nuclear weapons and Europe-oriented systems, we will likely be barraged with propaganda on the need to beef up the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, Asia, and the Caribbean. Several Democratic presidential candidates have made just such a shift the cornerstone of their proposed security policies.

Second, there is a “spillover” effect from the Cold War itself. Anti-communist hysteria in the US has periodically produced a compulsion to “do something” aggressive and punitive. Because “doing something” in Europe poses unacceptable nuclear risks, Washington has periodically lashed out at hostile Third World powers as a substitute for confronting the Soviet Union itself.

By the same token, the United States has often intervened in Third World conflicts for reasons that have little to do with US-Soviet competition. The United States exercised de facto domination over Latin America long before the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. What we are witnessing today in Central America is as much a reassertion of imperial will as it is a manifestation of East-West rivalry. The United States has acquired vast economic interests in the Third World over the past 40 years, and the protection of these interests has become an increasingly central concern of US military planning. Hence the Carter Doctrine, which still drives US involvement in the Persian Gulf area. In the Gulf as in other resource-rich areas, it is not Soviet propaganda and influence that threatens US interests but home-grown nationalism and radicalism.

This assessment forms the theme of a report presented to President Reagan in January 1988 by the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy. The commission, which included Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Fred Ikle and John Vessey, predicted that in the next two decades a “massive Warsaw Pact attack on Central Europe [or] an all-out Soviet nuclear attack” is much less likely than non-nuclear, low and medium intensity Third World conflicts “in which ‘the enemy’ is more or less omnipresent and unlikely ever to surrender.” The commission urges the Pentagon to shift its attention — and its budget — to meeting these more likely contingencies. Though the commission avoids the blunt language of the earlier RAND corporation study, its conclusions echo the fear that rich nations will be increasingly forced to defend their riches in the face of sharper and more confrontational demands by poor nations. Anxieties over these multiplying threats make it likely that as US-Soviet tensions abate, the North-South axis of conflict will predominate.

How to cite this article:

Michael Klare "North-South vs. East-West," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).