Saturday, December 22, 2007

The U.S. and Russia: A Tale of Two Presidents

Accompanied by blaring trumpets and a choir of schoolboys, Time Magazine has announced its Person of the Year for 2007. I'm not sure when this turned from a curiosity into an event, but it apparently now merits its own prime time television special. Because it was a slow year and Al Gore simply cannot be allowed to win everything, the honor, such as it is, went to Vladimir Putin, the increasingly autocratic Russian president.

Since Hitler was once named Man of the Year, the bar is not set especially high. Hell, last year, You won it. But Putin's selection does reflect his country's first significant rise up the ladder of scariness since Boris Yeltsin faced down a Communist coup in 1991 and followed up that accomplishment by assiduously poisoning his liver for the next decade. By the time Big Boris was done dancing and slurring his way into legend, Russia seemed so harmless that practically nobody noticed that Yeltsin's hand-picked successor had spent most of his pre-political life as an operative for the not-so-amusing Soviet KGB.

Upon meeting Mr. Putin, George W. Bush, that keen judge of character, bragged that he looked into his colleague's heart and saw a man with whom he could work, a fellow devotee of the democratic arts. Putin rewarded this observation by consolidating power, suppressing opposition parties, and rattling sabers to a degree unseen since the days of Brezhnev and Andropov. Aside from proving once again that Bush is a pathetic and unserious man, Putin's actions also called into question the degree to which the Cold War was ever truly won.

All this brings us back to the last time a Russian made it to the top of Time's annual list of the world's movers and shakers. At the end of 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev not only became that year's cover boy, he was actually named Man of the Decade. This, of course, refers to the decade of the 1980s, which will come as quite a shock to anyone brought up on the Gipper-centric narrative that dominates contemporary thinking about the era. But in the waning days of the Soviet empire, the people who were actually there and reporting the story chose Gorbachev, and not Ronald Reagan, as the one irreplaceable man.

Today, of course, the notion that Reagan won the Cold War is taken as an article of faith, even by those who ought to know better. It all started, we are now told, with Ronnie's "Evil Empire" speech, his massive military buildup, his defense of Freedom Fighters in Afghanistan (such as Osama bin Laden), and his bold Star Wars anti-satellite initiative. By the time Reagan famously demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, the Russian leader, according to this Republican fairy tale, simply had no choice.

But of course Gorbachev did have a choice. He could have held together his empire by any means necessary, mobilizing armies and deploying tanks. He could have threatened the United States with nuclear brinksmanship. Remember that the stakes involved were no less than the very existence of the regime that he was selected to preserve. Gorbachev could have pushed the button.

Though nuclear war was an unlikely scenario even under the direst conditions, the fact remains that the Soviet Union didn't have to go down without a fight. Most regimes wouldn't, and few guessed that this one would. Indeed, the U.S.S.R. may be the only world power in human history that ever threw in the towel without first losing a war of national survival. Two decades ago, Gorbachev received credit and gratitude for his extraordinary restraint as the Marxist-Leninist experiment drew to its unsuccessful conclusion. Today, he is nearly forgotten, another victim of the ever-expanding myth of Ronald Reagan and his supposedly epochal presidency.

To be sure, Mikhail Gorbachev was no saint. Indeed, nearly until the end, he worked tirelessly to save the Soviet Union and its corrupt and brutal Communist party. Still, when finally faced by the choice between gratuitous bloodshed and the surrender of an empire, Gorbachev opted for the latter. This time, because of his leadership, the tanks didn't roll into Prague and Budapest.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Reagan actually does deserve praise for his role in the dismantling of the U.S.S.R., but not for the reasons usually cited. Reagan entered the presidency a committed Cold Warrior and surrounded himself by others who shared similar views. Many of these advisors warned their boss not to trust Gorbachev. The White House hardliners insisted that all Commies were alike and that Gorby was nothing more than Brezhnev with a friendlier style and a disarming birthmark. Had Reagan listened to these people, had he not given Gorbachev room to maneuver, the old Communist bosses might have replaced their General Secretary with a more ruthless leader, someone who might have taken violent, decisive action when the satellite countries began to break free of their Russian orbit.

But to his credit, the ol' Gipper, a far better judge of character than George W. Bush, decided to take a chance on his new negotiating partner. Maybe he looked into Gorbachev's heart and soul. More likely, Ronald Reagan chose, after forty years of Cold War, to gamble on the possibility of lasting peace. Gorbachev responded by bringing the teetering Soviet empire to a safe and bloodless landing.

Just as in his Hollywood days, President Reagan's best moment came in a supporting, rather than lead, role.

No comments: