Can Non‐​intervention Survive Afghanistan?

June 1, 1980 • Policy Analysis

A Winter’s Tale

There’s a nice scene in the film The Godfather during which one of the headstrong sons wants to confront a rival with some proposition and the old don cautions him, “Mention it; don’t insist.” That would also be good advice for America in the aftermath of the swift and brutal Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. An eerie euphoria is sweeping this country, like the one that inflamed Europe in August 1914. Don Vito’s counsel doesn’t betoken cowardice — just healthy realism and an interest in staying alive.

The one thing that almost anyone (doves as well as hawks, liberals and conservatives alike) would say about Afghanistan is that we can’t just sit on our hands. I wonder: Why not? That sounds precisely like what we ought to be doing. Curiously, however, the one position that has hardly been expounded in the current American ” great debate” is nonintervention, that is, the case for doing nothing. Not symbolic measures, not oblique retaliations, not vague threats, not verbal doctrines, not basing and deployment schemes, but flat nothing.

These are times that try the souls of noninterventionists. Opinion is divided: the triumphant hawks; the chastened doves, only recently converted to fear and bellicose reaction; the other doves, the left‐​liberal remnant, embarrassed by the erosion of the factual basis of their position and straining to find another benign formula for avoiding a final slide into intervention. Worse perhaps than the vindictive hawks are the repentant doves, who feel personally outraged by the Russians for mocking their earlier notions of how the world works. “Betrayed, yes, that’s the word,” complains Senator Ed Muskie; Russia “just ran out on us.” George Ball, the old reliable devil’s advocate of “hopeful” diplomatic solutions, now wants bigger defense budgets, more airlift, sealift, Marines, and bases throughout the Middle East, revival of the draft, and urgent coercion of Israel into a settlement favoring pan‐​Islamic goals. Clark Clifford, who wisely encouraged Lyndon Johnson to abandon Vietnam, is peddling American arms and threats around South Asia.

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