For Western nations, which could scarcely believe their good luck in Mikhail Gorbachev, the military ouster of the reformist Soviet leader is a nightmare come to life.
Politicians, diplomats and strategic planners always knew this could happen: the rumbling tanks, the hardline junta, the quick stifling of free discourse. But they dared to hope.
Now, with hope crushed for the moment, the United States and its allies must condemn this step back into darkness and isolate its perpetrators -- without encouraging civil war.
The Soviet regime should be given to understand that the world will insist that it live up to its treaty obligations and fulfill its international commitments. They are many: Continued withdrawal of troops from Poland and eastern Germany, downsizing of the Soviet armed forces, reductions in Soviet nuclear arsenals, co-sponsorship of a Middle East peace conference, unfettered emigration and an end to Soviet-sponsored unrest in the Third World. Unless specific undertakings are given and confirmed, the junta is not deserving of diplomatic recognition, economic assistance or admittance into free world organizations.
President Bush rightly expressed the hope that the Soviet people would put an end to this illegal military coup d'etat and return to the freer expression and economic liberalization of the Gorbachev era. But his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, made it equally clear that internal events in the Soviet Union are outside U.S. control. Foreign nations are left to exhort and to exert pressure only on the margins.
One overriding reason for caution is the extremely dangerous position of the Soviet military at this juncture. Many of its leaders feel they have been humiliated and undercut by the accommodations Mr. Gorbachev made in light of his belief that the Marxist-Leninist experiment had failed. So there is a risk they will crack down or lash out with the still-mighty weaponry under their command.
This being the risk, the West has little choice but to deal with the Soviet Union as the military superpower it remains. The West cannot -- and should not -- tolerate any attempts to reimpose the Soviet empire, Cold War-style. But the free world must still hold out the opportunity for post-Cold War detente -- provided the Moscow leadership (whatever it is) shuns the regression and repression that so sorely tempts it.
For all too brief a time, there appeared a chance that the United States and the Soviet Union could be allies, not adversaries, in shaping a new world order. Now America's highest task is to keep that vista open for the day certain when the Soviet people will regain the bright light of freedom they knew for such a short time.