How Washington "got it right because it got it wrong" in 1989

Some great observations by the greatest chronicler of the 1989 anti-communist revolutions, Timothy Garton Ash, in The New York Review of Books:

During the first half of 1989, the new US administration of George H.W. Bush was extremely reticent in its response both to Gorbachev and to the changes being pushed forward by a combination of reform communists and dissidents in Poland and Hungary. What we have learned from the Soviet and East European archives confirms that Washington's assessment was, in fact, far too skeptical. (In one of several excellent scholarly essays in the volume edited by Jeffrey Engel, Melvyn P. Leffler notes how then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested that Gorbachev's policies "may be a temporary aberration in the behavior of our foremost adversary.") Nor did Bush set much store by bearded dissidents who looked like something out of Berkeley in the 1960s. Victor Sebestyen, in a book full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative, has a well-sourced account of the President meeting with the leading Hungarian dissident János Kis in Budapest in July 1989, and subsequently telling aides, "These really aren't the right guys to be running the place." Much better to stick with a preppy reform communist.

Yet even though Washington's cautious attitude partly resulted from a misassessment, this was actually the best possible position it could have taken. This time around, unlike in 1956, no one in Moscow could suggest with even a jot of plausibility that the United States was stirring the cauldron in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, Bush personally urged General Wojciech Jaruzelski to run for Polish president, as a guarantor of stability, and he was obsessed with doing nothing that could derail Gorbachev. Sarotte suggests that American restraint made it easier for the Soviet Union, too, to step back and let events unfold on the ground in East-Central Europe. With some exaggeration, one might say that Washington got it right because it got it wrong.

To give credit where it is due: in the last months of 1989, especially after the fall of the Wall, and throughout 1990, this initial superabundance of caution turned into a combination of entirely deliberate restraint ("don't dance on the Wall!" was the injunction heard in the corridors of the White House and the State Department) and some quite impressive statecraft in support of Helmut Kohl's drive for German unification on Western terms. But for the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland's roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States' contribution lay mainly in what it did not do. [...]

It is perhaps a characteristic of superpowers that they think they make history. Big events must surely be made by big powers. Yet in the nine months that gave birth to a new world, from February to November 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives. They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.

Link via Alex Massie. Reason on 1989 here.

I'll never forget just how baffled H.W. Bush seemed by events back then. He gave a speech to 100,000 people on Wenceslas Square in Prague on the one-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that was almost a masterpiece of mangled cues, from botching the pronunciation of "Vaclav," to piping in Civil War music at a time when the Czechoslovak Federation was beginning to fracture, to prattling on about God to one of the most atheistic countries on earth. Bush was advising Yugoslavia to stay together long after the first shots of that breakup had already been fired, and focusing most of his diplomatic attention (and even Central Europe speechifying) on putting together a coalition for the Gulf War. It's a pretty weird feeling when events are hurtling much, much faster than the participants, let alone superpowers, can comprehend or control.

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  • ||

    "It's a pretty weird feeling when events are hurtling much, much faster than the participants, let alone superpowers, can comprehend or control."

    They usually do. Fortunately, Bush had been around long enough to understand that and didn't do anything stupid. Experience teaches caution.

  • Mike M.||

    "It's a pretty weird feeling when events are hurtling much, much faster than the participants, let alone superpowers, can comprehend or control."

    It is indeed. Kind of like now, as we average Americans lose our jobs and quietly seethe, while we watch our "leaders" loot, bankrupt, and destroy the country.

  • ||

    A guy with two middle names will always prefer the status quo.

  • ||

    So sayeth we all.

  • The Gobbler||

    "Some great observations by the greatest chronicler of the 1989 anti-communist revolutions, Timothy Garton Ash"

    [citation needed]

  • Billy!||

    Remember those little pieces of the Berlin wall they were selling in stores? Does anybody still have one of those laying around?

  • ||

    My mom got a bunch of those and still has them. But I fear Steve Smith will come and rape them away.

  • ¢||

    [citation needed]

    He has a random-wanker-in-a-Python-sketch name. We don't need to know anything else.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    If I have any regret in life, it's that I didn't make it to Eastern Europe in 89-90 to join in the fun/history.
    But my oldest turns 21 today, so I guess I have an excuse.

  • ||

    I was in college. I could have totally run away and done it. I wish I had. If I had it to do over again, I would have waited to go to college and gone in the Army on the condition I got stationed in West Germany. I could have seen it all first hand.

  • ||

    If I could do it all over again, I'd have made money off all the games I now know the score of, and build a mansion on the moon.

    See, I can masturbate too.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    If I have another regret in life, it's that I never got the chance to punch briareus in the nuts.

  • Xeones||

    If I have any regret in life, it's that I didn't make it to Eastern Europe in 89-90 to join in the fun/history.

    Me too. In my defense, though, i was eight at the time.

  • Warty||

    You're my age? You sure do suck.

  • jesse||

    i was 2

  • Huh?||

    I was too busy snorting coke.

  • ||

    I was married to a whore back then.

  • ||

    The best government is one that tries to do hardly anything at all. Deciding not to invade Iraq -- leaving Eastern Europe alone -- having an abundance of caution about unintended consequences.

    As statists go, the run of presidents from Bush Sr. to Clinton wasn't too bad, at least compared to those activist SOBs Bush Jr. and Obama.

    Unfortunately, the slogans "Laissez-Faire" and "Prudent inaction" don't win elections like "Hope" and "Change" do.

  • ||

    Should read, "the run of presidents from Reagan to Clinton wasn't too bad" ...

    Preview!

  • Just Saying...||

    I figure they just continually get worse for the most part, however Bush's Gulf War could be seen as the beginning of our new problems, even though it could be argued that the Carter/Reagan intervention set up the loose structural composition between the Saudis and the ISI that Al Qaeda later thrived on. Some of the bad stuff that we are suffering through Obamabush was laid out much earlier. Clinton tried his damndest to get the PATRIOT act passed after OKC.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Somewhere, a liberal weeps over the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Speaking of which... whee IS Tony?

  • ||

    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20091116/suny/single

    The Nation has you covered. The events of 1989 were not the result of the failure of socialism or communism. No kidding. They actually beleive that.

  • Zeb||

    John, did you read that article? It seems like a pretty good round up of what lead up to the fall of Communism. I didn't see any tears shed over the fall of the Berlin wall. There is a lot more to what happened than "communism fell because it sucked". It did suck in an incredibly evil way, but it had lasted a pretty long time and could have lasted longer had the particular characters and events not come about they way they did 20-25 years ago.

  • ||

    No. I put the wrong link down. You are right. That is not the article I was thinking of. My mistake.I will find the right one.

  • Just Saying...||

    Hey that wall was a good example of a "shovel ready" public works program. The Berlin Wall saved 3 million jobs over its lifetime.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    "wheRe is"

    Jesus tapdancing Christ, I can't spell today.

  • Xeones||

    Speaking of which... where IS Tony?

    Couple of threads down, being his usual obliviously moronic self.

  • ||

    You all make fun of Tony, but I have seen him swallow some massively huge loads.

  • ||

    Practice makes perfect.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Blowing a rough trick named Jim behind the local welfare office must count as part of Tony's public service requirement.

  • ||

    I'll never forget just how baffled H.W. Bush seemed by events back then.

    I am pretty sure that, years to come, the premier of China will show the same confusion when HE comes to the USA to give a similar "congratulatory" speech, after the fall of Obamanism...

  • ||

    That's Feralism, and it won't be China. It'll be India.

  • Xeones||

    Wrong, Warty. You're MY age.

  • Shannon Love||

    Bush41's model of foreign policy froze solid circa 1973 with the realist containment school. He openly mocked Reagan's idea that communism could be defeated and instead believed only in permanent pragmatic containment. Central to that idea was stability in all things not only including stability in allied rightwing authoritarian regimes but also within communist states themselves.

    I think he viewed the rebellion in Eastern Europe as more a threat to stability and much more likely to produce a superpower confrontation than to lead to any real reform. I think he believed it would be 57' and '67 all over again. He was just waiting for things to settle down and return to stable stasis.

    He forgot that life is not static and that all attempts to make it so eventually fail. He seems to have spent most of his time in office trying to calm things down instead of driving events along. He might have done the right thing but is so, he did so accidentally. He could have just as easily have screwed things up.

  • ||

    prattling on about God to one of the most atheistic countries on earth.

    Second only to the Vatican City, I believe.

  • monolith||

    true for the Czech republic but isn't Slovakia very catholic?

  • Isaac Bartram||

    [Bush]...forgot that life is not static and that all attempts to make it so eventually fail.

    Actually, rather than "forgot", I suspect he never really knew it.

    He seems to have spent most of his time in office trying to calm things down instead of driving events along.

    The tell the truth, I rather think a President can do worse than to take this course.

    It was actually what I hoped for from Obama. Yes, I know, more fool me.

  • ||

    Yeah. I don't see how trying to "calm things down" is such a bad instinct in a President.

  • moosecat||

    Bush I ... what fuckin loser

  • Mike M.||

    Yep, the Bush family will go down in history as one of the worst things to befall our poor country; the royalty that wrecked America. I curse their name.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Hold up... Obama's term isn't over yet.

  • Xeones||

    More so than his son, moosecat?

  • ||

    I give all credit to Rocky IV.

  • ||

    Yet even though Washington's cautious attitude partly resulted from a misassessment, this was actually the best possible position it could have taken. This time around, unlike in 1956, no one in Moscow could suggest with even a jot of plausibility that the United States was stirring the cauldron in Eastern Europe.

    Isn't this exactly what we're being advised to do regarding Iran and other Muslim nations? Pretty much the same dynamic. Be too upfront and the powers that be can arouse nationalist sentiment. Be laid back and they get taken by surprise.

    I'm not sure if it wasn't an accident, either. But I don't discount the possibility that it was intentional, for just this reason.

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