The Soviet Union can no longer act as a brake on US. expansion, and Western Europe cannot do so yet. That is the bitter, bloody and understated lesson of the current crisis. As the willful destruction in the Persian Gulf draws to an end; as our ministers and mediamen, having double-thought and double-talked beyond Orwell’s imagination, cynically proclaim that might is right; and as the population laps it all up with patriotic fervor, there is a great temptation to blame the bloodthirsty gods or the folly of humankind. It is more useful, however, to examine the causes of Russia’s weakness and of Europe’s abject abdication, and to seek behind these failures the political and social forces that may be capable of challenging President Bush’s “new world order,” which is as old as capitalism and as modern as a laser-guided missile.
The Limits of ‘New Thinking’
The Soviet government “regrets” but it “does not condemn…” This refrain sums up the dilemma that was revealed in two dramatic weeks m February, when the world saw both Mikhail Gorbachev’s skill and the real limits to his diplomatic action. Soviet involvement began much earlier, of course. From last August it was crucial. Above all it was precious for George Bush, who could not have disguised U.S. intervention as a United Nations operation without the blessing of Gorbachev. In return the Soviet leader was promised economic rewards and shown immediate consideration, notably over his troubles with the Baltic States. But as the war heated up, he grasped that he had struck a bad bargain. The Soviet press began to suggest that the destruction of Iraq by the United States and its allies was going beyond the U.N. resolutions. On February 12, judging the Iraqis ripe, Gorbachev sent his personal envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, to Baghdad. Three days later Iraq publicly envisaged the possibility of accepting Resolution 660, which called for the unconditional evacuation of Kuwait. By Monday, February 18, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was in Moscow studying the Gorbachev peace plan, which the Soviet leader duly communicated to Washington and other Western capitals.
The Americans (who, we now know, had already set the date of the ground war) were enraged by this threat to their schedule. Bush’s first instinct was to reply, We want Saddam Hussein’s scalp and nobody is going to stop us. Under the Influence of his advisers, however, he chose to rely first on the Soviet Union’s obvious reluctance to risk an open break with Washington. The Soviet pupil was told to amend his copy and duly did so. By Thursday Aziz was back in Moscow. The next day Gorbachev produced a revised plan, which included a timetable for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait: four days to leave Kuwait City and twenty-one to abandon the entire country. That Friday, however, Bush, with the obedient allies lined up behind him, delivered his ultimatum: Within twenty-four hours Iraq had to accept the Western terms–allowing a week for total evacuation–or all hell would break loose. Even then Gorbachev did not give up. He spent the final Saturday calling Western leaders, pleading personally with Bush to put the decision off by a day or two in order to find a compromise between the two proposals. He allowed his ambassador to the U.N. to tell the Security Council that the parting words of Aziz suggested Iraq would accept such a compromise. To no avail. Gorbachev was coolly thanked for his services by the Americans and dismissed.
What should we have expected the Soviet leader to do? My own opinion is that a socialist leader should have retrospectively condemned Soviet aid to the semifascist regime of Saddam; condemned with equal vigor the Kuwaiti and Saudi oligarchies and their close ties to Western oil and financial interests; and spoken to the Arab and Western peoples above the heads of their governments. But Moscow, I recognize, long ago ceased to use such language–and not with the advent of Gorbachev but with the rise of Stalin. Even leaving such dreams aside, there was still scope for a different line, if only the Soviet diplomats, instead of bothering about U.S. sensibilities, had chosen not to waffle but to speak their mind.