October 24, 1996 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

ed102496: New Foreign Policy Credo: Be Prepared

The 1996 election campaign has been conspicuously quiet on foreign policy. Both major presidential candidates, catering to a post-Cold War public glad to be rid of the constant nuclear threat from the Soviet Union, have avoided the subject, thinking they were following the prudent political course.

I disagree: Leadership requires more than merely reflecting the momentary concerns of the electorate. It requires not just talking about what people say they are concerned about, but also pointing out what they ought to be concerned about. And they ought to be concerned about foreign policy.

The truth is that the United States is handling foreign policy challenges like Iraq, Bosnia, North Korea and Haiti on an ad hoc basis -- without adequate contingency plans already in place when trouble strikes. What this means is that it is only a matter of time before America is caught unprepared and becomes unnecessarily involved in another war or some other international crisis.

In the post-Cold War era, the United States has failed to set clear and meaningful criteria for action, stick to those criteria, and effectively communicate them to friends and enemies alike so other nations can predict how we will respond in a given situation. Without such guidelines, friends are left not knowing whether they can count on us, enemies are encouraged to test the waters to see what they can get away with, and our military is involved in matters best handled by other countries or by international social workers.

The White House should be formulating its plans for dealing with possible foreign policy crises now -- based on a clear understanding of U.S. interests and capabilities to shape events -- not after events start spinning out of control. Here is a "top-10 list," if you will, of worst-case foreign-policy scenarios the White House should be prepared to deal with should they arise, arranged in order from least to most likely:

Scenario #10  Civil war in Russia divides control of Russia's nuclear forces between various political and military factions. Based on false information that the United States is about to intervene militarily, a rogue commander authorizes a nuclear attack on the United States or U.S. forces in Europe. Unlikely, to be sure, but not impossible;

Scenario #9  Next year, China decides to turn up the heat on Taiwan by establishing a naval blockade of that island nation or threatening a ballistic missile attack;

Scenario #8  Iran tries to close down the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, bottling up some 20 percent of the world's oil supplies, or helps topple the monarchy in Saudi Arabia;

Scenario #7  An Iraqi-backed terrorist group attacks U.S. troops in Kuwait with biological weapons -- anthrax spores, for example -- killing hundreds of American soldiers. However, no one takes credit and no one is sure who did it;

Scenario #6  Russia threatens the Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- with military action in response to NATO's decision to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in the alliance;

Scenario #5  Boris Yeltsin dies and new Russian elections result in the rise of an unpredictable, anti-Western president like Alexander Lebed. Or Yeltsin doesn't die, but becomes incapacitated, setting off a dangerous succession struggle in the Kremlin that destabilizes Russia;

Scenario #4  Saddam Hussein shoots down a U.S. plane in the newly expanded no-fly zone in Northern Iraq and takes its pilot hostage;

Scenario #3  North Korea decides to go down fighting, invades the South, overruns most of the 37,000 U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone, and reduces most of Seoul to rubble;

Scenario #2  China decides to crack down on Hong Kong next year after the former British colony reverts to Beijing's rule;

Scenario #1  U.S. troops stay in Bosnia past the promised December deadline for withdrawal, and dissatisfied groups decide to eject the Americans by force, or radical Moslem terrorists launch attacks on remaining U.S. troops.

Does the administration have contingency plans in place should any of the above scenarios arise? To judge from its conduct so far on the world stage, it is highly improbable.

No administration, Republican or Democrat, should operate in the foreign policy arena without clearly understanding how America's interests would best be served in such crisis scenarios. Unless U.S. policy-makers are prepared to act with determined vision in the post-Cold War world, they place America at risk.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy