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It is, as Russians often say, no accident that Joseph Stalin's first important job in the Bolshevik government was commissar of nationalities. Gorbachev demonstrated last week that he is prepared to tolerate if not instigate Stalinist methods to keep the U.S.S.R. together. His alibis and obfuscations do not change that stark, ugly bottom line.
Yet there was a bizarre similarity between what Gorbachev and Bush felt compelled to do last week. Each was resorting to the use of force in the name of law and order.
Gorbachev hopes the world in general and Bush in particular will indulge him in his crackdown on separatists because the alternative could be worse: the chaotic disintegration of the Soviet Union, which in turn may trigger a takeover of the country by a troika representing the military, the secret police and the Communist Party hard-liners. The sad implication of last week's massacre in Vilnius was that such a reversal may already have begun, with Gorbachev himself either as a participant or as a front.
For his part, Bush justified the violence he unleashed on Iraq as an unavoidable step toward the forging of "a new world order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations."
It was the right rhetoric on behalf of the right policy. But no one should be under any illusion that the much vaunted new world order is in place or even at hand. Quite the contrary, last week's events in the Persian Gulf and on the Baltic Sea, while different in so many respects, had the combined effect of making the new world order seem all the more remote.
The U.S. Administration has been praised, deservedly, for securing the support of the United Nations Security Council and assembling a multinational coalition behind the effort to drive Saddam from Kuwait. Bush and other U.S. officials stressed repeatedly that the armed forces of 27 nations were fighting, or at least supposedly prepared to fight, alongside the American soldiers, sailors, aviators and Marines.
While all that is admirable, it is hardly new. The U.S. went to war against ^ Adolf Hitler half a century ago as part of an alliance and on behalf of principles similar to those at stake today. In 1950 the U.S. plunged into Korea with the backing of a Security Council resolution and accompanied by the forces of 16 other nations.
Moreover, politically comforting as it is to have them there, the multitude of different colored flags arrayed in and around Saudi Arabia is not terribly relevant to the outcome of the battles now under way in Kuwait and Iraq. Desert Storm is very much an American operation. Once again, America's hardware, prowess and ability to absorb casualties will ultimately make the difference. In his press conference Friday, when Bush expressed his desire for the U.S. to be a "healer" and a "conciliator" once the fighting stops, he sounded downright Wilsonian. Even the President's idealism and his eagerness to be a good winner are out of the past.
Much of the talk about a new world order started a year ago, when Saddam was just another loudmouth bullyboy who was being paid off by the gulf Arabs, lethally equipped by the Soviets, as well as by the French and Germans, and coddled by the U.S. The cold war was over -- that was the big news and the all-transforming fact of international life.