Observations: Mr. Gorbachev Comes to Washington

Is Mikhail Gorbachev good for America? Practically everyone but me seems to think so.

I exaggerate of course, though not that much. After all, with the highly notable exception of Henry Kissinger, it is hard to think of a single prominent public figure who has unqualifiedly challenged the idea that Gorbachev is a blessing not only to his own people but to us as well.

Nor is it easy to think of more than a few articles or editorials that have stood up against the tidal wave of euphoric comment about Gorbachev’s program of domestic reform, his commitment to arms control, and his desire “to calm the international climate.”

Such, according to an approving report by Flora Lewis of the New York Times, was the consensus of a conference of “experts” held last month by the Institute for East-West Security Studies. Naturally this consensus was not disturbed by the “body of opinion in the U.S. that urges simply to glower,” as Miss Lewis writes in language whose awkwardness still leaves her meaning clear. That body of opinion simply “wasn’t represented at the conference.”

Given this press—infinitely more favorable than any Western politician could ever dream of getting—it is no wonder that Gorbachev has become so popular with the general public. Thus a recent poll awarded him a higher approval rating than anyone then openly seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

When we consider the competition Gorbachev is up against, this may not seem so surprising. But the truth is that there has been nothing like the response to Gorbachev since the celebrations of “Uncle Joe” Stalin that became so common here during World War II.

I am also reminded of the days, both before and after the war, when the Soviet Union was regarded by millions upon millions of people all over the world- – not all of them by any means Communists—as a model to be emulated, “the wave of the future.” And I am reminded too of how the same people believed that what Stalin really wanted was not to expand the Soviet empire but to preserve security and peace.

Am I exaggerating again in comparing what is being said about Gorbachev now to what was being said about Stalin then? Well, listen to Gary Hart speaking in Philadelphia in October: “While we in the United States have only begun to debate whether the post-war policy of containment is still effective, the Soviets seem to have jumped a generation in age and several generations in outlook by selecting such a leader” as Gorbachev.

Hart then went on to praise Gorbachev for seeking to do “what we should have undertaken long ago—the reallocation of financial and technological resources, and of human ingenuity, from nuclear weapons research and development to revitalization and modernization of the domestic economy.”

Here it all is, and stripped of the usual cautionary notes that Hart would have felt obliged to sound if he were still an active candidate for president: the Soviet Union is showing the way to a better society and a more peaceful world.

The paradox is that this noble model we are supposed to follow needs our help in order (so we are also told) to become more like us—more democratic, more capitalist, less aggressive. But let the contradiction pass. The practical point is to prove that it is in our interest to help Gorbachev succeed.

To those few of us who have trouble understanding how it can be in our best interest to help the Soviet Union become more powerful than it already is, one explanation is that a “wounded bear” is more likely to go on the offensive than a healthy bear. Yet as the great French political commentator Jean-Francois Revel reminds us, the detente of the 1970s showed “that a Soviet Union generously helped by the West may, on the contrary, behave in a more imperialistic manner than ever.”

Another argument advanced by the Gorbachev cultists is that (in Flora Lewis’ summary of the expert consensus) “while a stronger economy would enhance Soviet power, the steps needed to achieve it would almost surely change the nature of that power so that it is less threatening to others.” But as Revel, here echoing Kissinger, also reminds us, “the most reforming Soviet leader on the domestic policy front, Nikita Khrushchev, was the one who practiced the most adventurist foreign policy.”

Those of us who oppose helping Gorbachev do not question his desire to make the Soviet economy more efficient. Nor do we doubt that in pursuit of this objective he is willing to allow a little more freedom. We also think, however, that these measures have the additional purpose of softening up Western opinion and getting the U.S. to lower its guard.

As we interpret Gorbachev’s strategy, the result of such a softening would be enough economic aid from the West to bail him out of the current economic crisis while allowing him to hold onto his edge over us in military force. Furthermore, at the same time as the West would in effect be subsidizing Soviet military power, a bewitched United States would be cutting back on its own. Arms control is an essential element of this brilliant new Soviet strategy. First, eliminating nuclear missiles from Europe will ensure that the Soviet superiority in conventional forces becomes decisive on that front. Then, in a second slice of the fabled salami, the delay and ultimately the killing-off of SDI, even combined with a 50 percent cut by both sides in long-range missiles, will leave the U.S. vulnerable to Soviet nuclear blackmail.

If Gorbachev is a blessing for us, what would a curse be like?

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Podhoretz served as Commentary magazine's Editor-in-Chief from 1960 (when he replaced Elliot E. Cohen) until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz remains Commentary's Editor-at-Large.

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