After faithfully following the Gulf War for 44 days and nights, fascinated by the human drama, the “smart” weapons, and the intense debates about the “new world order,” I must have fallen asleep in front of my television set at a crucial moment. For when I awoke on the morning of February 28, I could not understand what had happened. Suddenly, Desert Storm was over, but all I could see were jubilant celebrations in Baghdad. As for the coalition leaders, they were enthusiastically talking about negotiating with Saddam Hussein over POW’s and over the destruction of his remaining Scuds and chemical weapons. So, I asked myself, who had won the war? Surely not the coalition: those who win do not negotiate, they give orders; and those who are defeated do not negotiate either, they obey.

 

My bewilderment was deepened when I remembered how often it had been said that this war was not being waged against the Iraqi people, with whom we had no quarrel of any kind, but against Saddam Hussein and his regime. In fact, the people of Iraq had been perceived as allies and were called upon to overthrow their dictator, branded a war criminal who deserved a Nuremberg-type trial. Yet Saddam now seemed to be about the only person in Iraq who had not suffered as a result of the war.

It was only when the plight of the Kurds attracted public sympathy that the inconsistency of the coalition’s behavior was widely recognized. But why was it not apparent on February 28, or even earlier? On the one hand, we were told that the aim of Desert Storm was to remove the threat of aggression in the region (Saddam Hussein and his regime), and to restore “stability”; but, on the other hand, we were also told that the coalition partners wanted to preserve the “territorial integrity” of Iraq and, in any event, would limit their action to liberating Kuwait. The future of Iraq was supposed to be “determined by the Iraqi people.”

Now, with all due respect to the wisdom of our policy-makers, how could these two objectives be reconciled? If Saddam Hussein and his regime remained in power, the threat of aggression in the region would remain, albeit delayed by the need to restore his military might. If, however, the people of Iraq were allowed to determine their own future, then the territorial integrity of Iraq would suffer. In either case, where would “stability” be? Did anyone seriously expect Saddam to become a peace-loving character, or the Kurds to abandon their century-long struggle for independence?

Clearly, our policy-makers did not know what they were dealing with. Nor did they bother to learn. The United States, the leader of the coalition, was more preoccupied with exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam than with solving the region’s problems. Once again, it was fighting itself and its past and, once again, American politicians robbed their armed forces of a deserved victory. One was forced to conclude that the 200-year-old idea of avoiding foreign entanglements still dominated American political thinking. Hence the desire to hide behind the United Nations (which is far more entangling than any possible alliance), and behind the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. What strange logic: relentlessly bombing Iraq was not considered interference in its internal affairs, while helping Iraqis to get rid of a tyranny was.

But let us imagine that at the beginning of January the ruling Baath party had decided to replace Saddam Hussein with another figure, and that this new leader of Iraq had proclaimed a program of democratic reform. At that point a mere promise to withdraw from Kuwait would have been sufficient to keep the coalition at bay. In addition, our policy-makers undoubtedly would have convinced themselves that they had a duty to support the new reformist Iraqi leader, and even to offer him economic aid lest his more hawkish rivals in the Baath party take over again. And when he finally did withdraw from Kuwait, he would have been applauded and celebrated and perhaps even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, while the entire world would have paid the cost of building new barracks for his retreating troops.

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Ridiculous as this scenario may sound, it is exactly what has happened in a far more important recent conflict. Here, too, we awoke one morning to a sudden announcement that a war—the cold war—was over and, try as we might, we could not find out who had won it. All we could hear were enthusiastic speeches by Western leaders about “new opportunities for improved relations” with the Soviet Union, about negotiating arms reduction, and about the peace-loving, reform-minded Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had made these great opportunities possible. And so it was that in the first six years of Gorbachev’s reign, about $45 billion was poured by a grateful world into his coffers in order to “save” him from the “hardliners.”

By now East-West relations have become so dialectical that even Hegel would feel dizzy: Germans pay billions to Soviet troops for staying on their soil because they want them to leave, while Americans consider how much economic aid is necessary to induce Gorbachev not to maintain his present level of military spending and not to keep pouring money into Cuba, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.

So who won the cold war? Who lost it? Or was it a draw? If the Soviet Union lost (as we all assume), the changes which have taken place there must be a direct result of that defeat, rather than of a sudden change of heart among the Communist leaders. And if this is so, we do not need to pay for the Soviets’ retreat, to prop them up with all kinds of aid, or to be afraid of recognizing the independence of the Baltic states. But if we are still scared to do any of the above lest the “hardliners” return and start up the cold war again, then the Soviets have not yet lost, and we have not yet won. Like the coalition troops in Iraq, we simply stopped one day too early, hastily claiming victory while the business of war was not yet finished. And, very much as in Iraq, the people are left to pay for this unfinished business with their blood and livelihoods.

I wonder what the West is going to do now. Will it send UN troops to protect Armenians, Georgians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Moldavians from the rages of the Soviet “republican guards” while still continuing to support those very “guards” through Gorbachev? Will it attempt to feed 300 million people on one-sixth of the globe’s surface by dropping food from planes? Or will it placidly watch the starvation and misery caused by the half-measures of Gorbachev’s perestroika?

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2. Glasnost and Perestroika

Contrary to a popular illusion, glasnost and perestroika were not invented by Gorbachev: the blueprint of this reform program was worked out a few years before he came to power, apparently under Yuri Andropov. Although glasnost and perestroika were calculated to look like an introduction of democracy and a market economy, their true goal was to salvage “socialism” and to preserve Communist-party rule. In external relations, their purpose was to increase Soviet influence in Europe by improving the image of the Soviet state and by returning to a policy of détente after the spell of cold war in the early 1980’s.

Such fluctuations of policy from détente to cold war and back, caused by a contradiction between the economic deficiency of the USSR and its global ambitions, are typical of Soviet history. This time, however, the crisis was so severe that it threatened the Soviet Union’s superpower status: the USSR could not continue its military competition with the West, as well as its expansion in the third world, without a dramatic improvement in its economy. Hence the urgent need for détente on the one hand, and for a within the-system economic readjustment on the other. To put it plainly: the Soviet leaders needed to preserve their military advantage and their client-states while fixing their economy, and that was impossible without considerable Western assistance, both economic and political.

Although Western assistance was enthusiastically granted, thereby reducing the burdens of empire, repairing the economy turned out to be far more difficult than had originally been thought. It simply could not be achieved without certain political adjustments. For in order to increase productivity, the entire system of socialist “production relations” would have to be dismantled and replaced by a market system of economic incentives, and that was bound to affect the Communist party’s control. The time was long gone when people joined the party or listened to it because of their revolutionary enthusiasm. Once that enthusiasm died, the party had to rely on its exclusive right to promote or to dismiss, to enrich or to impoverish, any individual in the country. But if people were now going to be promoted according to their talents and rewarded according to their performance, who would bother to join the party, or listen to it?

The trouble was that the reforms would have to be implemented through the same party apparatus whose power they strove to diminish. This structural constraint alone made far-reaching reforms quite impossible. Yet if they did not reach far enough, they would not work.

A way out of this impasse was sought in glasnost and perestroika—a well-organized, well planned retreat of the party from the position of absolute master to that of a senior partner. One junior partner—the Soviet population—was promised a degree of participation in governing itself, greater cultural autonomy, more information, a higher standard of living, fewer restrictions and repressions. Another junior partner—the West—was promised “peace and cooperation,” more civilized behavior, and more openness. In exchange, the two junior partners were expected to help the party restore its control over the country, modernize the economy and make it productive, salvage the superpower status of the Soviet Union, and expand its influence into Western Europe.

But the success of any partnership depends on the cooperation of everyone involved, and while the West was completely thrilled with this “New Deal,” the Soviet population was not about to follow Mark Twain’s advice: to have constitutional rights and the common sense not to use them.

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3. The People and the Party

By the end of 1989, it was already clear that Mikhail Gorbachev would not retain the title “Man of the Decade” which he had just been given by Time magazine. Suddenly, the mindless euphoria which had accompanied Gorbachev’s five years in office was giving way to more sober thoughts, if not anxieties. Western public opinion was being invaded by the uneasy feeling that “poor Gorby,” to quote Fred Barnes of the New Republic, was “shaping events as decisively as Czar Nicholas II did after World War I broke out.” He was beginning to be perceived either as irrelevant or as an obstacle to further reforms. The French newspaper Le Monde summarized this new perception in a cartoon showing a crowd marching under the banner of perestroika, and Gorbachev running after them with the cry: “Wait for me, I am your leader!”

Ironically, this change of public perception occurred in the West just as Gorbachev made a first significant departure from Leninism by giving up the Communist party’s monopoly on power. Dramatic as the event was, only a few observers described it as another “new victory over the conservatives”; most noted the practically unanimous show of hands in favor of the proposed change at the Central Committee session. So much for the “hardliners” and “conservatives” from whose clutches the West had been “saving” Gorbachev all those years.

Besides, one could hardly ascribe this decision to Gorbachev’s reformist fervor. As many in the West still remembered, it had first been suggested by Andrei Sakharov, and later supported by the striking miners, only to be categorically rejected by Gorbachev himself just three months before the Central Committee session in which he finally embraced it.

By that time the leading role of the Communist parties had already been surrendered in every East European country (and in Lithuania as well), leaving Gorbachev under enormous pressure to follow suit. If he did not, the Communist party, as he himself admitted, would simply be “swept away by the pressure from below.”

In short, it now began to dawn upon the Western publics that their hero, this great champion of democracy, was just trying to save the remnants of the Communist system, together with his own political hide. What was originally intended as a within-the-system readjustment had grown into a popular revolution threatening to bring the whole system down. As a result, Gorbachev’s main preoccupation became—and has remained to this day—one of stalling the process he himself had unwittingly triggered.

There is nothing unusual in such a development: as Tocqueville observed long ago, the most dangerous moment for a despotic government is when it begins to change. Like so many reforming despots before him, Gorbachev made two basic miscalculations: he overestimated the strength of the ruling party, and he underestimated the people’s hatred of the old regime. If, then, we owe anyone a debt of gratitude for the spectacular changes in the East, it is the people, not the despots.

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This is especially true of Eastern Europe. Needless to say, Gorbachev never intended to destroy the Communist system in Eastern Europe, nor did he plan to hand East Germany over to NATO on a silver platter. On the contrary, he wanted to replace “hard-core” Communist regimes with a “soft-core” variety and, in doing so, to finish off NATO. The idea was to trade the Iron Curtain for something that Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev had all coveted in their time and failed to get: a neutralized “common European home.”

One must admit that the plan was quite ingenious, at least in theory. After all, it made perfect sense to think that the West Germans would accept almost any conditions in order to be reunited with their Eastern brothers. NATO would then have no good reason to exist. Nor could the Americans stay in Europe once NATO had gone, particularly if skillfully stirred troubles in their Central American backyard continued to split them from Europe. And as soon as NATO disintegrated and the Americans went home, an appropriately modernized Soviet army would be the only real force on the continent. Its mere proximity would define the essence of European neutrality.

The first moves in this European gambit were played masterfully. The way Moscow pulled the plug on Honecker, Jakes, Zhivkov, and especially Ceausescu will be studied by many generations of scholars. But after so spectacular a beginning, the outcome was a complete disaster for the Kremlin strategists. No KGB analyst could fathom the depth of mistrust and hatred the people of Eastern Europe felt for any Communist leader, “liberal” or “conservative.” Try as they might, the new Moscow puppets Krenz and Modrow, Mlynar and Mladenov could not possibly “stabilize” Eastern Europe and salvage the cause of socialism by promising to give it “a human face.”

For not crushing the East European revolutions with his tanks, Gorbachev was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But what else could he have done when he knew very well that tanks could only either save, or bring in clones of, the Honeckers and Husaks he was determined to replace? Besides, such intervention had been ruled out by the growing rebellion of nationalities within the Soviet Union proper.

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This, too, as he later confessed, Gorbachev had failed to anticipate, and the fact that he did is truly revealing. Anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the Soviet Union knows that no nation ever joined it voluntarily. After the Russian empire disintegrated at the end of World War I (very much like other continental empires), it was glued together by Lenin with Marxist ideology in the course of the civil war, and then reinforced by Stalin in the course of World War II. The Soviet Union was therefore bound to break up as soon as the glue lost its cohesive force.

How, then, could Gorbachev have not foreseen that trouble would break out in such a multinational empire as a result of his statements on greater cultural autonomy and economic self-management in the occupied nations? Yet Gorbachev went beyond this. As we now know, the growth of the “popular fronts” in many republics was actually encouraged from Moscow, the idea being to create useful tools of perestroika which would be kept under tight control and directed accordingly.

Once again, the plan was quite clever, but totally unrealistic. Like almost everything else in Gorbachev’s perestroika, it was borrowed from Lenin, who had advocated a broad coalition with non-Communist forces during the period of his New Economic Policy (NEP). Later this “front” technique was used by the KGB abroad in order to manipulate Western public opinion and political activity. Yet in those days, the party was still strong and vigorous, while the Western non-Communist forces had very little experience of “cooperation” with the Communists. Since the Soviet population under Gorbachev knew better, and since the party now consisted of bureaucrats and not of professional revolutionaries, the whole plan brought disaster. Confronted with an increasingly radicalized public mood, the leaders of the popular fronts (mostly local Communists) either had to join the crowd or get discarded. This, in turn, led to a crisis of the local Communist parties: they could save their credibility only by breaking off ties with Moscow. First, the Lithuanian, then the Latvian, Estonian, and Georgian parties did exactly that—but even so they were kicked out and the popular fronts quickly became truly democratic parties.

Meanwhile, having lost control over the mainstream national movements in the republics, Gorbachev had to rely on extremists as a counterforce. Practically every republic had a minority, indigenous or migrant, which was already viewing the growing nationalist movements with increasing alarm. Even without KGB manipulation, the history of their cohabitation was not all rosy; now, with a bit of effort, it was turned into a nightmare. All at once, there were pogroms, “ethnic clashes,” and suffering minorities who, surely, must be protected by Moscow which “reluctantly” had to send in troops to restore law and order. Only occasionally did we get a glimpse of the true picture, as when, after the bloody operation in Baku last year, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov admitted in an interview that the Soviet troops had been sent to Azerbaidjan not to protect the Armenian minority, but to prevent the nationalist popular front from taking power.

Gorbachev’s policy (if one can call it by such a dignified name) is both cruel and short-sighted. It drags the country into the quagmire of civil war, while driving national movements, moderate and democratic at present, into an abyss of extremism. For if they fail to deliver the coveted national independence by peaceful democratic means, while the bloody provocations or artful dodgings of Moscow continue, the people’s mood will be radicalized even further and they will find themselves more extremist leaders, as they already have done in Georgia.

Gorbachev’s economic “policy” is no better. Even in the face of ultimate disaster he makes only the most grudging theoretical concession to the need for a market economy, while time and again repeating his incantations to “give socialism a second breath,” as if it ever had a first one. One can impose socialist regulations on an already existing market, but to expect to create a “socialist market” where no market has existed for 62 years is like expecting a horse to be born harnessed.

There is by now only one way to avoid civil war in the Soviet Union, and that is to dissolve the “Union.” But who will Gorbachev be if he should do that? An unelected president of a non-existing country? Equally, the only way to avert a spiraling round of food riots and strikes followed by new repressions is to introduce a market economy far more radically than was done in Poland. But where will Gorbachev’s ruling elite, all those millions of apparatchiks, be if that happens? Standing in line for unemployment benefits? On trial for corruption and abuses of power?

So what can they do? They have no solutions, only tactical moves—such as proposing a new treaty of union with the republics, as was done at the meeting of the Central Committee in late July—aimed at slowing down the inevitable and hoping that sooner or later the people will get tired. Martial law is hardly an answer since it would further aggravate the crisis by adding a mutiny in the army to the general discontent in the country.

Gorbachev might even try something like this out of desperation. Yet the more power he acquires legally, the less power he has in reality, and if this process continues, he may end up as an absolute dictator over nothing. He is becoming as irrelevant as a foreman at the construction site of the Tower of Babel, with all the former builders quarreling in their different languages as the Tower crumbles to the ground.

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4. Helping Russians

Unfortunately, the recent sobering of Western public opinion has not sufficiently affected the attitudes of Western policy-makers. Although, being short of cash themselves, they have backed away from the so-called “Grand Bargain” (the idea of handing over additional billions of dollars to Gorbachev in exchange for new reforms), they are instead resorting to technical aid and other indirect methods of propping him up.

Nor have they ruled out future infusions of cash; the Europeans, led by Germany, can be expected to go on pressing the Americans and the Japanese to dispense ever vaster sums to rescue Gorbachev, whom they all praised to the skies at the economic summit in London this past July. Never mind that economic aid—as the experience of the third world shows—invariably increases the role of government and encourages parasitism, not initiative. Never mind that genuine market reforms do not require Western taxpayers’ money at all: on the contrary, they require a drastic reduction in the size and power of the state as a most important condition for attracting investment. Never mind all this: the only important consideration for Western policy-makers is, it would appear, to “save” their hero. And they still do not ask themselves a simple question: save him from whom? From his own people who want democracy, not “socialist pluralism”? From the people of the enslaved nations who want self-determination?

One can understand why Gorbachev made such spectacular miscalculations, overestimating the strength of his party and underestimating the people’s hatred of it. But why do Western policy-makers repeat the same mistake? Why do they constantly ignore the people and always support their oppressors?

During a recent visit to Moscow I was asked the same question in every audience by people in all walks of life: why does the West insist on backing an unelected, hated, failed dictator, and why does it refuse to back leaders duly elected by the people? What do they want from us? What did we do wrong?

Certainly, after Gorbachev’s unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to crush the democratic movement, no one in the country is going to take at face value his latest twist in the other direction. Nor can a pseudo-democrat like Eduard Shevardnadze with his pseudo-oppositional “Democratic Reform Movement” inspire the Russian people or gain their trust. Apart from everything else, Shevardnadze is still remembered as a torturer and executioner in his native Georgia. Boris Yeltsin, by contrast, has become a true democratic oppositionist, and as the elected President of the Russian Republic, he is well-placed to lead a process of healthy confrontation with the central authorities—a process that should be encouraged by the West. Bringing pressure on him to effect a “reconciliation” with Gorbachev, as the West has done instead, is not in the interests of the country, since no real reforms are possible by a compromise with the party.

Indeed, no one is likely to trust a party which abused the people for 73 years, even if it promises a full-fledged capitalist democracy. Contrary to Western perception, the Communist party is now a source of instability: it is too weak to govern, yet too strong to be removed peacefully. Further Western support of Gorbachev and his “Union” will only encourage the dying regime to use violence, just as Western support for the “territorial integrity” of Iraq (and more recently Yugoslavia) has done.

One might think that it would be only natural for Western democracies, and particularly the United States, to take the side of the growing national-democratic movements in the republics, to endorse the aspiration of the peoples there for freedom and democracy. Yet here again, we can see an example of the perverse logic according to which support for a dictatorship fighting its population is not regarded as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, while support for the people is.

Ironically, it was the Soviet Union itself, as the champion of “wars of national liberation,” which in 1970 got the UN General Assembly to enact the “Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Nations.” According to this Declaration:

Every state has a duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples of their right to self-determination, freedom, and independence. In their actions against resistance to such forcible action in pursuit of the exercise of self-determination, such peoples are entitled to seek and receive support in accordance with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter.

Why, then, does the West hesitate to support Lithuanians and Armenians, Latvians and Moldavians, when these nations are, under the Soviet Union’s own doctrine, “entitled to seek and receive support” under international law?

And why do Western agencies, both governmental and private, promote disunity by turning Moscow into a kind of political Klondike where the competition for grants and deals not only exacerbates old rivalries but also stimulates new ones which reflect not the situation in Moscow itself but quarrels exported from Washington and New York? Why does the West find it so difficult to develop a coherent policy aimed at helping a strong and united democratic opposition to consolidate itself?

For the truth is that only the emergence of such a strong and united democratic opposition can stabilize the country by replacing the Communist party in power, dissolving the empire, and introducing painful economic reforms, very much as has already happened in Poland. Only a strong and united democratic opposition can prevent the excesses of violence and vengeance so common at a time of transition. Only a strong and united democratic opposition can avert civil war and mass starvation. And only a strong and united opposition can build the edifice of democracy on the ruins of totalitarianism. Helping such an opposition is, therefore, the best investment the West can make. And it would be considerably less expensive than trying to “save” Gorbachev.

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