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A Proper Response to Gorbachev

THOUGH the differences are narrowing, there are important disagreements between American conservatives and liberals over how to react to the changes taking place in the communist world. Liberals generally argue that a lack of a substantial response on the part of the Bush administration would be detrimental to American interests. Conservatives tend to hold that a major response at this time would be premature, given that the future of current Soviet policies is uncertain. The arguments from both camps entail some fundamental assumptions regarding the effect of US policy on internal Soviet politics. The conservative argument, if it is to be made credible, must assume the following:

1.There exists within the Soviet Union a conservative wing opposed to Gorbachev's reforms.

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2.This conservative group is increasingly disenchanted with Gorbachev, especially as he undermines the Communist Party.

3.To date, economic reforms have produced no concrete results but have led to popular dissatisfaction, which has undermined Gorbachev's position.

4.Gorbachev's recent actions (or lack thereof) in East Europe have angered Soviet conservatives more, and thus further decreased the likelihood that he will retain the reins of power much longer.

Given these assumptions, it can be argued that Soviet politics is influenced not primarily by Washington's behavior, but by events over which the US has no control: ethnic conflicts, consumer dissatisfaction, and the Eastern European revolt. If this is the case, then (according to conservative critics) to drastically reduce the US presence in Europe, substantially decrease military expenditures, and/or make major economic concessions would serve only to undermine our position with the Soviets without yielding real benefits. If and when Gorbachev is overthrown, we could find ourselves at a serious disadvantage and hard-pressed to return to parity with the USSR. If, however, we respond cautiously to real, verifiable changes in Soviet behavior, we will be better positioned.

Except for the first assumption (the existence of conservative opposition to Gorbachev), liberal critics work from different beliefs:

1.The position of Soviet conservatives will be weakened if Gorbachev can show his policies are yielding positive results.

2.These positive results would include concessions from the US regarding military personnel in Europe, significant (as opposed to token) US aid to those Eastern European nations attempting to recover from the effects of four decades of failed policies, and a further loosening of restrictions on trade, especially high-tech.

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If he is able to point to positive results, Gorbachev will stand a better chance of placating the Soviet public and part of the bureaucracy and the new Supreme Soviet, and be better positioned to keep opponents at bay. So, say liberals, US policy decisions do effect internal Soviet politics.

WE are faced with the question of whose assumptions most accurately reflect the true relationship between US policy decisions and Soviet internal politics. While it is impossible to give a definitive answer to this, it is possible to examine the implications of formulating US policies based on each set of assumptions.

If we accept the conservative view, especially the assumption that a conservative resurgence in the USSR is inevitable, it seems the US can play no decisive role in Soviet politics and therefore should prepare for the worst.

It appears, however, that the approach of American skeptics can only lead to an increased divide between Gorbachev and his opponents. Thus, if the conservative argument is taken as definitive, and US policies fashioned accordingly, the result will likely be the worst case scenario held by conservative analysts, namely the overthrow of Gorbachev.

While it could be granted that US policy cannot be expected to have major positive effects on Soviet internal politics, it seems the potential for negative repercussions (another ``cold war'') will become more pronounced if the US fails to act decisively.

On the other hand, if we assume that a substantial positive response from the US can help keep Gorbachev in power and pursuing positive changes, then such a response is warranted. The risk of losing ground to a resurgent conservative Soviet leadership is outweighed by the tremendous advantages inherent in the continued liberalization of the USSR. In fact, it should be quite difficult for conservative Soviet leaders to firmly establish themselves in power in a ``positive'' international environment in which Washington has clearly demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with Moscow.

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