Gorbomania: The Sequel

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George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev are having a state dinner, perhaps at their first official summit. Ceremonial toasts are offered. Gorby raises a glass to prosperity and world peace. It's George's turn. Remembering an old line from his vice presidential days, he stands and proposes his toast. "We love your adherence to democratic principles," he tells the Soviet leader. After all, it worked with Marcos…

Well, it probably wouldn't happen exactly that way. But it could. In George Bush's Washington, there's a disturbing tendency to confuse Soviet reform with democracy, reformers with democrats. (The same was true for China not too long ago.) Rooting for Gorbachev is even more popular than denouncing drugs or deficits. No praise is too extravagant—and no criticism is allowed.

This is an unfortunate, and potentially dangerous, attitude. Gorbachev's reforms have certainly released powerful forces for freedom and independence throughout Eastern Europe. But in our euphoria at the sight of Berliners freely climbing back and forth over the Wall, in our excitement at elections in Hungary and Poland, in our joy at the possibility that not only the Cold War but the tyranny at its root may at last be coming to an end, it is important that we consider just what we'd like to see happen in Eastern Europe—and to remember whose side we're on.

As Bush gets acquainted with Gorbachev, it would be nice to think that the president understands that American interests do not inevitably and always lie with the status quo. But his near-unequivocal support for Chinese officials against their people does not inspire confidence that he will challenge, even privately and politely, anything Gorbachev does to consolidate power.

Consider the administration's response to Gorbachev's recent campaign against the press. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh was visiting the Soviet Union when Gorbachev fired the conservative editor of Pravda and pressured the liberal editor of Argumenti i Fakty to quit. (The guy had had the audacity to publish a survey ranking Andrei Sakharov the most popular member of Parliament—and omitting Gorby from the top 10.)

Thornburgh, no doubt expressing his own annoyance with free press, said that the administration "could sympathize with" Gorbachev's frustration "with regard to some of the reporting on restructuring." It's bad enough to send the nation's top lawman on a junket to consult with the KGB and various other organs of state security. But if he can't uphold American values, couldn't he at least keep his mouth shut?

Our policy toward the Soviet Union, both in rhetoric and action, ought to flow from a few basic goals, facts, and values. First of all, we must keep in mind that it is Gorbachev's reforms, not Gorbachev himself, that merit support. Our interests, strategic and moral, lie not with the Soviet leadership but with those who want to be independent of that leadership.

Nor are the reforms irreversible. True, Soviet Marxism has lost its luster as a credo. But, unlike the citizens of Mao's China, East Bloc residents have been cynics for decades. That communism doesn't work is no big surprise to them.

And if the ideology doesn't work, the tanks still do—and they are still in place in large numbers. Soviet officers still control the military forces of the Warsaw Pact, stationed throughout even the liberalizing countries. Leaving the Warsaw Pact is not an option; neither is letting, say, Poles control the Pact forces in their country.

That East Germany has suddenly liberalized is wonderful. That it happened after Gorbachev had a little chat with Egon Krenz should make it clear who still runs Eastern Europe. Krenz "was deeply impressed," said a Soviet "journalist" about the meeting. I'll bet he was.

All of which leads to a concrete, though probably long-term goal: splitting the nations of Eastern and Central Europe (including the Baltic states) from the Soviet empire to form a neutral community at the heart of Europe. At present, Soviet policy is that Warsaw Pact nations can do what they want internally as long as they don't try to leave the Pact. And as long as they don't—and can't—leave the Pact, "what they want" will pretty much be determined in Moscow.

Neutral countries, while they couldn't go around deliberately antagonizing the Soviets, would be far freer to determine their own internal destinies. A neutral band around the Soviet Union would also significantly reduce the likelihood of Soviet expansionism and, as a result, of war between the superpowers.

Of course, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe can't just up and declare themselves neutral. Neutrality will come about only if the United States and the Soviet Union can agree to guarantee it, as they guarantee the neutrality of Austria. And the status of Germany—East, West, or reunified—will remain problematic for some time.

Right now, however, U.S. policymakers can take steps toward these longer-term goals. On the rhetorical front, administration officials should make it clear that the United States believes that the nations of Europe, including Central and Eastern Europe, ought to be free and independent states. Instead of constantly reiterating how the United States believes in freedom but abhors violence and supports order, George Bush, Jim Baker, and pals ought to unequivocally endorse democracy. Violence is not, of course, desirable; but it is far less likely to come from those working toward liberty than from those who would suppress them (and who, after all, have the guns, tanks, and soldiers).

Second, we should support freedom and democracy while remembering that independence is not freedom, any more than elections are democracy. As countless Third World dictatorships have proved, throwing off a colonial yoke without establishing protections for individuals hardly amounts to freedom. And electing officials who exercise near-absolute power over political and economic life merely creates a milder form of dictatorship.

The United States should make sure it weighs in for freedom, not merely against communism—or against only pre-Gorbachev communism. (As Gorbachev's skillful manipulation of Russian nationalists, such as the fascistic Pamyat, demonstrates, groups that do not respect individual liberties are natural allies not for pro-freedom change but for existing tyrannies.)

The United States's own security would certainly be boosted by a smaller Soviet Union surrounded by neutral states. So it would not be out of place for the U.S. government, as well as for private groups, to provide financial assistance and advice on institution-building to those groups that are working to free their countries. We should not, however, try to prop up socialist economies by pumping money into the planners' projects, even those projects deemed "reformist." Subsidizing socialism will only postpone true reform.

These are exhilarating times. History seems to be moving in the direction of liberty. But there are no historical inevitabilities. If we abandon our principles, fail to set firm goals, or place excessive faith in the goodwill and permanence of Mikhail Gorbachev, we cannot hope to see freedom prevail.

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