WASHINGTON. — Mikhail Gorbachev may be the most misunderstood European authoritarian since General Franco.
In the late 1930s, Franco was widely thought to be an Iberian Hitler, a dynamic force for a radical New Order. In fact Franco just wanted to shove modernity back north of the Pyrenees.
Mr. Gorbachev, like Franco, is partly responsible for being misunderstood. Mr. Gorbachev's rhetoric has often been, as Franco's was, bolder than his aims. But Mr. Gorbachev has made clear that his aim is preservation of the ''socialist choice'' -- his phrase -- the Soviet Union made in 1917. His aim has been only the revitalization of the command society now collapsing around him. Abandonment of the command system has not been tried, or probably even considered.
Failure at home breeds failure abroad, as with Mr. Gorbachev's trip to Tokyo. He went there, as he goes everywhere now, as a mendicant. Perhaps in his palmier days of political health he could, in effect, have sold to Japan the four Kurile Islands (one actually just a pile of rocks) the Soviets took from Japan at the end of World War II. In exchange, perhaps Japan would have provided significant investments and credits for the Soviet economy.
But two things are now different. The Soviet military, having seen its strategically significant European conquests undone, has dug its heels into the stony Kurile ground. Even Boris Yeltsin, playing a nationalism card, has suggested that yielding the islands would be ''another Alaska''-- not a good deal. And even if Mr. Gorbachev had been willing to sell the islands, Japan might not have been willing to pay much in the form of more money thrown after the money already lost in the black hole of Mr. Gorbachev's economy.
Mr. Gorbachev's advisers justified his request for Japanese aid in language that explains why the request failed. The advisers said the Soviet economy today resembles Japan's economy in 1945. That is, 74 years of the ''socialist choice'' Mr. Gorbachev still defends have done to the Soviet economy what saturation bombing, to the point of unconditional surrender, did to Japan's.
Mr. Gorbachev's advisers suggest Japan and the Soviets have similar economic traditions, meaning, apparently, government planning. Mr. Gorbachev's interlocutors probably were too polite laugh at this stunning underestimation of the scope of entrepreneurship in Japan. They certainly were too intelligent to sink much more wealth into a sinking Soviet economy.
Mr. Gorbachev's defense of the ''socialist choice'' does not mean he is a doctrinaire Marxist, but he remains a Leninist. Laying a wreath at the tomb on Lenin's birthday, he was true to his obviously unshakable belief in ''democratic centralism.'' That entails his remarkable fidelity to the only remaining sinew of Soviet state power, the military.
The Committee on the Present Danger reports there was ''no measurable reduction'' of Soviet military spending in 1989 and that 1990 spending was at 1988 levels. The advertised cuts were primarily cancellations of some planned increases. There have been curtailments of production of tanks, artillery and aircraft which are already abundant, but production of other categories of weapons have exceeded annual averages during Mr. Gorbachev's first four years. Manufacture and deployment of strategic systems, offensive and defensive, continue unabated.
Even if Soviet military spending is held at 1988 levels, it may be a growing percentage of a shrinking GNP. Today it is upwards of 25 percent of GNP. By 1995 U.S. defense spending is scheduled to fall below 4 percent of GNP, the lowest level since before World War II.
The committee says ''the Soviet 'military-industrial complex' is tTC the only economic component functioning normally.'' This does not mean Soviet intentions have not changed or that the general economic collapse will not eventually drag down the military sector. They have and it will. But the relative vitality of that sector, in the face of disintegration elsewhere, does indicate where Mr. Gorbachev's power base is.
It is among the men who cling to the Kuriles -- the military. Mr. Gorbachev's power and desire to modify the command society -- never large -- has withered.
He may be the most overrated man since Mussolini in the 1920s. Then Mussolini seemed to some a sort of Mediterranean Teddy Roosevelt, brimming with energy and the desire for improvement, perhaps too casual about institutional niceties but still the dynamic sort of fellow his time and nation needed.
Mussonlini wasn't, because he did not have a good idea. Mr. Gorbachev isn't, because he doesn't either.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.