Record of experts on Soviet Union is mixed on forecasting Gorbachev's downfall

August 20, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- His prescience may not help him be confirmed as CIA director, but yesterday's coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev does confirm Robert M. Gates' reputation: the Bush administration's in-house pessimist was right.

So was Alexander Yakovlev, once Mr. Gorbachev's top aide, who quitthe Soviet Communist Party on Friday, warning that a hard-line coup was in the works.

But for the legions of American Sovietologists, the record is mixed.

The effort to sort out who was right and who was wrong is a classic Washington response to an international crisis, as experts scramble to demonstrate that world events prove the soundness of whatever policy position they have been advocating.

But such questions are more than just an exercise in personal scorekeeping. For years, the competing views of Soviet experts have helped drive U.S. policy.

Mr. Gates, for example, as a career Soviet analyst and Mr. Bush's deputy national security adviser, has long warned that Mr. Gorbachev's reforms were fragile and, in the end, unlikely to succeed. Those statements brought him at times into conflict with other, more optimistic, policy-makers such as Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Now, "there are few people who can look back at what they said with more satisfaction than Gates," said George Carver, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Predicting disaster "is not something you want to be right on, but Gates and Dick Cheney," the secretary of defense who was also pessimistic about Mr. Gorbachev's chances, "are looking pretty good," an administration official said.

Whether all that will have any impact on Mr. Gates' nomination to be director of central intelligence is uncertain, however. The opposition to him has little to do with his views of the Soviets and has centered on questions about what role he played in the Iran-contra scandal.

Some Soviet experts admitted surprise at the coup. "I didn't think they could pull it off," said Duke University's Jerry Hough, author of a recent book on Mr. Gorbachev.

"Even those of us who thought we knew something about the Soviet Union were surprised," said Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington.

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