Mr. Strauss goes to Moscow

June 07, 1991|By Scott Bennett

NOW, brought to you courtesy of George Bush and Ji Baker: "Mr. Strauss Goes To Moscow."

After a half-century of nuclear brinkmanship and proxy wars, the two global military superpowers are entering their most critical historical moment. Whether this moment leads back to a neo-Stalinist deep freeze, to civil war, to an authoritarian state resembling Gen. Augusto Pinochet's Chile, or upward toward Adam Smith's latest triumph is far from resolved.

If the former, the Soviet Union will be a stunted Third World economic body carrying the weight of a First World military machine, and clinging to a secular religion now universally discredited. That Soviet Union would be a time bomb.

Civil war in a nation with 20,000 nuclear warheads is also unthinkable, but a very real possibility. The elite army units and the KGB have not moved in large part because they fear the regular army will do as the regular Romanian army did, and fight for the people. And if the old guard's red star has suddenly dimmed it is because the proletariat's proletariat, the coal miners, have made it clear they want to be capitalists and are ready to fight. So are the oil field workers -- and a modern army travels on oil. Still, the night of the long knives could come.

The worry here is not that some crazed commander will launch a rocket toward Washington, D.C., but that warring factions will begin to shoot nukes at each other, or worse, raise money by selling nukes to foreign powers who might shoot them at Washington, D.C.

The Chileanization of the Soviet Union is also a real possibility. Stalinism minus Marxism, plus a corporatist market economy, adds up to a kind of fascism whose latest incarnation was Chile under Pinochet. That Chile was a good place to do business for international corporations, a good global citizen that paid its international loans on time, but also a government that had the bad habit of torturing and killing its citizens.

Many Soviets of even a liberal bent believe that the potentially violent chaos they expect to attend the birth of Soviet capitalism will require a firm, well-armed hand, to guide the invisible hand. They believe that incremental democracy may be a necessary evil, and that Pinochetism is so much less virulent a form of suppression than Stalinism that it may be acceptable medicine. This would not be anathema to an international corporate community that needs stability and predictability and assurances that investments will be safe from harm.

An onward and upward climb to strip centers and Disneyland-Moscow also is possible. With the old guard in a fitful retreat, and the workers demanding a capitalist paradise, President Mikhail Gorbachev has offered the West a chance to substitute its cash for the old guard's guns, in order to steady the Soviet ship. In effect he is asking for the chance to reconsider the U.S.S.R.'s decision not to sign on to the Marshall Plan a half-century back.

Gorbachev, and even his sometime-ally, sometime-enemy Boris Yeltsin, both make clear that there are limits to how far they can go in meeting Western demands for freedom now. They will not now let the rebellious Baltics go because to do so would surely provoke the old guard to roll the dice, and roll the tanks. Nor can they instantly adopt the credo of the American Civil Liberties Union as their national standard for human rights. Nor can they make the U.S. Congress the de facto governing body of the Soviet Union.

For many Democrats, who only a short time back were suggesting that even mildly criticizing such totalitarian troglodytes as Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev was reckless brinkmanship, anything short of this promised land is reason to cast the Soviets adrift.

In fact, in so chaotic a situation there will be a trade-off between freedom and economic progress. The trick is to negotiate a trade-off that maintains a steady pace toward stable democracy, that incrementally minimizes the roll of the Stalinist elements, that provides economic growth and stability.

As the Texas wheeler and dealer Robert Strauss knows, sweeping demands certain to humiliate the Soviet people and antagonize all stripes of Soviet leadership are a sure path to disaster. He knows too that faith in princes, even such magnetic and politically adept princes as Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, is foolish. The real course is to use political and economic leverage to nurture a transfer of power to a galaxy of institutions that ultimately leave the Stalinist infrastructure a deflated balloon.

The problem is there is little media glamour to incrementalism. The focus of the left will be on the inevitable human rights abuses that are good copy if taken out of context. The focus of the right will be on those republics-nations yearning to be free. Yet, the West really has no choice but to find the spare change for a Marshall Plan II, and to be tolerant if not approving of a nation trying to make up for several centuries of stunted development. The other alternatives are too unthinkable.

It is a situation tailor-made for a politician's politician, a man of law who knows sometimes you have to cut a deal, a statesman who knows the tides of history cannot be tamed, only accommodated. George Bush and Jim Baker will now have a man in Moscow who is all these things.

Scott Bennett is an editorial writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

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