Action in World Hot Spots Should Tell President Soviets Haven't Changed
by Daniel Pipes and Adam Garfinkle
The old saw holds that if you wake an Englishman at 4 in the morning you'll find that before he composes himself he will talk just like an American.
It's not true, of course, but it does betray an American assumption that under the skin everyone is really about the same as we are.
This thought comes to mind in the aftermath of the Moscow summit meeting. President Reagan, it seems, doesn't think that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is really a communist. Reagan, of course, has not said this in so many words but he did retract his famous statement about the Soviet Union being an evil empire, and he does declare at every opportunity that Gorbachev differs fundamentally from his predecessors.
Given that Reagan remains as anticommunist as ever, one can only conclude that the President now sees Gorbachev somehow as one of us.
This leads Reagan further to believe that Soviet foreign and security policies in the Gorbachev era differ fundamentally from what came before.
The apparent conversion of so powerful a figure as the President forces the rest of us to ask whether Reagan is right, or whether his is simply a repetition of Richard Nixon's willing suspension of disbelief. Is Reagan's optimism justifiable or is it a dangerous illusion? Has he become a wise elder statesman or has he forsaken his healthiest instincts?
The only way to answer such questions is on the basis of Soviet actions.
Unfortunately, the record thus far gives little reason for optimism. Rather, it suggests that the Kremlin realizes the extent of its domestic and foreign problems and that it seeks to find a way to win American help with those troubles.
If the goal of domestic economic restructuring is a serious one, Moscow cannot afford to fight its many imperial wars currently under way. It is therefore prepared to be flexible.
In the case of Mozambique, this has meant getting the West to finance its client — when you think about it, quite an achievement.
Soviet diplomats have also been active in such outposts as Angola, Nicaragua and even Cuba. But the three wars of the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq-Iran War and Afghanistan — offer the most interesting perspective on Soviet behavior abroad.
With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviets have made some notable pronouncements. They have complained publicly about the obduracy of the Palestine Liberation Organization, decried Syrian intransigence and hinted that they no longer seek the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Do these assertions signal a change of heart, or are they merely efforts to placate the United States and get Moscow a front-row seat at an international peace conference?
The fact that Moscow's support for its Middle East allies has not diminished one bit, and that Moscow still refuses relations with Israel, suggests that the former reading remains the correct one.
In the Iraq-Iran War the Soviet attitude has been very old-fashioned. Valuing bilateral relations with Tehran more than regional stability or peace, Moscow has vetoed efforts by the United Nations to impose a cease-fire or an arms embargo against Iran. In the Persian Gulf it is business as usual.
And even in Afghanistan, where Red Army troops are currently withdrawing, Gorbachev's intent remains murky. So far, no step taken by the Soviet Union has precluded a continued role for it in Afghanistan.
No doubt Moscow hopes to keep sufficient assets (weapons, advisers, agents) in place so that, pending a crisis, it could reoccupy the country. Further, it appears to be engaged in a de facto annexation of northern Afghanistan. Moscow may also intend to promote a civil war to keep the country roiled, much as the Syrian government does in Lebanon. Among other benefits, this would keep the refugees in Pakistan, maintaining Soviet leverage over Islamabad.
In light of this evidence it is very difficult to credit Reagan's somewhat mystical sense that a new era has dawned with Gorbachev. Instead, his change of heart can be accounted for only in other, less rational, terms.
One explanation may lie in the effect that nearly eight years at the pinnacle of power have had on an elderly and not terribly well-educated mind. There is considerable evidence that Reagan's ego has expanded in the twilight of his presidency as he gropes for a place in history.
Indeed, a string of recent actions — as evidenced in former White House chief of staff Donald Regan's book — suggest that his behavior is largely guided by wishes for a favorable press and a place in the pantheon of popular American Presidents. Unfortunately, neither of these offers a suitable basis for judging the intentions of the Soviet general secretary.
Daniel Pipes is the director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Adam Garfinkel is the institute's coordinator of political studies.
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