Recently, Boris Yeltsin received a lot of press attention for a rambling speech in which he warned President Clinton that bombing Iraq could mean a world war. Of course, the press focused on that provocative language, from which Yeltsin wisely backed away. Less attention was paid to another piece of advice Yeltsin gave Clinton that is of profound significance and well worth heeding. On Clinton’s policy toward the latest crisis in the Middle East, Yeltsin said, “He’s acting too loudly. You have to be more careful in a world that is saturated with all kinds of weapons in the hands of . . . terrorists. It’s all very dangerous.” How right Yeltsin is.

During the Cold War, the United States reluctantly abandoned its traditional foreign policy. For 175 years, the nation had followed the foreign policy of military restraint overseas and the avoidance of permanent, entangling alliances--a policy that was initiated by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During the Cold War, in the name of fighting the global threat of communism, the United States sought to micromanage almost every conflict in every region on earth and tried to implement Pax Americana by forming alliances, such as NATO, SEATO, and ANZUS. After over 50 years of this policy, the Cold War aberration now seems like the norm.

Even though the Cold War ended nearly a decade ago, U.S. foreign policy remains on autopilot. The United States continues to intervene in unimportant, far away places, such as Bosnia and Somalia even though no global superpower exists to capitalize on such “instability.” In addition, the Clinton administration is not only retaining NATO--the Cold War military alliance originally created to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union--but is expanding its territorial coverage and transforming it, at least partially, to perform crisis response and peacekeeping missions even farther afield. Any advocates of restraining this unbridled interventionsim are labeled “isolationists.” Advocates of military restraint are labeled “isolationists” and are caricatured as outdated ostriches with their heads in the shifting sands of an increasingly interdependent world. The implication is that we must fight “instability” anywhere and everywhere, lest it reach the shores of the United States.

The world has changed and has become more interdependent, but it is the defenders of the Cold War paradigm who have their heads in the sand. They fail to understand that intervention for anything less than compelling reasons has become far too dangerous.

The proliferation of the fairly low technology needed to create chemical and biological weapons now allows terrorists under the sponsorship of a rogue state (for example, Iraq) or acting independently to retaliate for excessive U.S. intervention abroad. In the past, terrorism was regarded by great powers as a nuisance rather than a core security issue. Both governments and terrorists perceived that causing massive casualties would harm the terrorists cause. With revenge attacks becoming more prominent, that comforting perception is now changing. A chilling study by the Pentagon, DoD Response to Transnational Threats, reports that the threat from terrorists is growing because they are now willing to inflict massive casualties. The Oklahoma City, World Trade Center, and Tokyo subway incidents bear this out. Equally important, the report notes that the technology to create weapons of mass destruction has proliferated far and wide. Because such proliferation allows chemical weapons to be produced in any pesticide plant and biological weapons made in virtually any biomedical or pharmaceutical laboratory, increasing interdependence in the world may favor David rather than Goliath. Small amounts of those lethal substances-easily smuggled into the United States through normal commerce--could inflict massive casualties in any American city.

The most important admission of the DoD report is that “historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.” New weapons of mass destruction available to the terrorist now make this a core threat to national security. That altered strategic environment should cause the United States to reassess its post-Cold War habit of intervening in conflicts that are not vital to its national interests. Endangering the homeland and its citizens to “enhance stability” or “promote democracy” in some distant and unimportant place is a warped conception of national security. Some may scream “appeasement,” but advocacy of swift military action only as a last resort when truly vital interests are stake is nothing of the sort. It is only prudent in a more interdependent world where even terrorists can reach out and touch the United States. Why go out of our way to search for enemies?

In the current crisis in the Middle East, neither bombers or inspectors will stop Iraq’s mobile and easily concealed biological and chemical labs from producing more of those weapons. Ironically, in revenge for U.S. bombing, Saddam might sponsor a terrorist attack against a U.S. city using chemical or biological agents that were originally produced to intimidate his regional adversaries and posed no direct threat to the United States. And Iraq is hardly alone. Many other countries and groups have the potential to make such weapons for use against their enemies. Clinton should listen to Yeltsin’’s warning and make sure that the United States does not needlessly become one of those enemies.