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Defense issues at critical stage

Defense spending and, more important, the U.S. role in world affairs will be a big item on the agenda of the 102nd Congress, which convenes in January. The outcome is sure to have an important effect on business.

Attention to defense spending is driven by two competing forces. On one side is a growing budget deficit fueled by a Congress with an out-of-control spending habit.

In addition, a slowing economy, which increases government spending for safety-net programs such as unemployment compensation, puts added pressure on public spending.

Second are world events. For example, the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait arrested most of the giddy talk about a 50% reduction in defense spending by 1995. So much for the peace dividend.

Indeed, the past 12 months have been anything but peaceful.

At Christmas 1989, U.S. troops were in Panama, having ousted the criminal Noriega regime, which was about to take control of the Panama Canal under previous treaties.

During the past 12 months we have seen civil war in El Salvador, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Chad. At the same time there has been significant movement toward peace in Nicaragua and Cambodia, where, in both cases, U.S. participation in the process was a force for peace and democracy.

Active guerrilla warfare is being waged in Colombia, the Philippines, India and Rwanda. Civil unrest has erupted in Isreal, Bangladesh, South Africa, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – and in some of these places may be may be headed for civil war.

So the world is still a dangerous place. The U.S. does not have vital economic or security interests in each of these countries, but we certainly do in some.

Just last week, for example, the resignation of Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze warned of the potential for dictatorship and civil war in the Soviet Union. If civil war breaks out, we would be faced for the first time in history with warring factions having access to nuclear weapons. That’s not a reassuring prospect.

And by the year 2000, more than a dozen nations will have nuclear weapons.

So, as Congress pays more attention to defense spending, let’s hope the debate is guided by equal attention to strategy and the requirements of national security in the post-Cold War era. Military power and effective diplomacy go hand in hand, whether the diplomacy is exercised by a nation or by the United Nations.

The U.S. role in world affairs is changing, just as the world is changing. As we move into the new era, it is important to ensure that defense spending is driven by policy and strategy and not by fiscal considerations.

Strategic miscalculations in national security carry heavy penalties, are not easily remedied and have lasting effects. Ask any European.

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