Rethinking The Red Menace

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George Bush concluded after the shipboard summit in Malta that the time had come for him to join in an enterprise that Mikhail Gorbachev has called "new political thinking." It was a sentiment worthy of a New Year's resolution, and a new decade's. So far, Gorbachev has had a near monopoly on the promulgation of bold ideas. Bush's main contribution has been an appeal for Western policy to move "beyond containment." That phrase, which he hoped would be the slogan of the year, sounded all right when he first enunciated it last spring, but that was a long time ago. Since then Gorbachev's initiatives and the events they have triggered have made containment sound like such an anachronism that the need to move beyond it is self-evident. Last week's U.S. invasion of Panama was a case in point. It was Uncle Sam's first major post- containment military operation; neither the ghost of President James Monroe nor a single live communist was anywhere in sight.

Members of the Administration have had trouble thinking about the long-term future because the short term is so uncertain. No sooner did they decide on affirmative answers to their initial questions about Gorbachev -- Is he for real? Is he good for us? -- than they started worrying, Will he last? Will he succeed? What happens, and who takes his place, if he doesn't?

Such questions are by definition unanswerable except with qualified guesses. What are the chances of rain tomorrow? Forty percent. Better take an umbrella. What are the chances of the Big One sometime in the next 30 years if you live along the San Andreas fault? High enough that you'd better check your insurance policy; make sure it covers acts of God. Gorbachev is to political earthquakes what matadors are to bulls. Wondering about what will happen to him -- or because of him -- is unlikely to inspire boldness in someone so naturally cautious and prone to overinsurance as George Bush. That, in essence, is what happened in 1989.

Whether Gorbachev succeeds or not matters immensely to his people and the world. But the world should not need to await the outcome of what he is trying to do to see the significance of what he has already done: he has accelerated history, making possible the end of one of its most disreputable episodes, the imposition of a cruel and unnatural order on hundreds of millions of people. Sooner or later, their despair and defiance would have reached critical mass. But the explosion occurred this year, much sooner and more spectacularly than anyone had predicted, because the people had in Gorbachev the most powerful ally imaginable.

Perhaps just as important, the Gorbachev phenomenon may have a transforming effect outside the communist world, on the perceptions and therefore the policies of the West. Watching him ought to inspire, in addition to awe, suspense and admiration, an epiphany about what his fellow citizens call, with increasing irony, anger and impatience, "Soviet reality." Gorbachev's determination to restructure that reality should induce Westerners to practice a kind of reverse engineering on the images in their own mind. The question of the hour should be not just, What next? but, Knowing what we know now, having seen what we have seen this year, how should we revise our understanding of the Soviet challenge?

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