December 21, 1990

To use a Russian metaphor, Mikhail Gorbachev and his closest associates are like a group of men who have been holding a bear by the legs and ears. They don't particularly like it, but they don't know how to let go.

Eduard Shevardnadze's stunning resignation yesterday means that a key player in this drama of bear-wrestling suddenly let go and walked away from the fight. While his act is understandable, the fact remains that his departure now means that the remaining players have to get control of that loose paw very quickly, or the bear of Soviet dictatorship will soon be loose again.

Shevardnadze's exit is especially troubling because, despite his warm praise for Gorbachev, the resignation will be seized by the unregenerate paranoid element in America who harbor something akin to a racial prejudice toward Russia. We may be certain that voices like the Wall Street Journal, William Safire and Jeane Kirkpatrick will now gleefully dust off the old "warm-smile, iron-teeth" image of Gorbachev that was put to rest when Ronald Reagan put his arm around the Soviet leader in Moscow in 1986.

The fact is, Gorbachev probably is going to have to exert more authority than he wants in order to quell rebellion or even chaos. But Americans might do well to remember that it was just a little over 30 years ago that American presidents, Republican and Democrat, were sending federal troops into our own "provinces" of Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi to put down open rebellions against constitutional authority.

We would also do well to ask, would we prefer Gorbachev to continue to struggle with the bear, or do we want to take our chances with some unknown quantity? The Red Army, for instance? Or Boris Yeltsin? Is there any logical reason to believe that he could do better than Gorbachev?

Shevardnadze's resignation should not be a cue for the West to pull back from its support of Gorbachev; on the contrary, he needs it in this dark hour more than ever.

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