JERUSALEM — Jerusalem.--Mikhail Gorbachev is out of power. This should remind us that the most important development in recent history -- the rapid erosion of Soviet totalitarianism -- is only a process, not an event. Unlike an event, a process can be slowed, or stopped or (at least temporarily) reversed.
The threat of a return of a new form of the old Soviet system is big-league stuff. Remember: These are the folks who, until very recently, owned six countries in Eastern Europe, rented dozens of others around the world, pushed for global communist revolution, deprived their citizens of elemental freedoms, financed international terrorism and, by the way, regularly reminded us that they had nuclear missiles pointed our way.
Even a temporary reversion to such a situation is potentially cataclysmic. Such a threat takes primacy over domestic
concerns. To put a blunt point on it, it is more important than the education problem, deficits, endangered species, homelessness, AIDS, S&Ls and recession.
So the nations of the West must be -- to use an old Cold War word -- vigilant. Are we? I fear not.
I offer two small examples of how quickly democracies can forget.
In Israel, three weeks ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against a project to build 14 new Voice of America and Radio Liberty transmitters in the Negev desert. Environmentalists claim that the transmitters might disrupt the migratory flight patterns of pretty birds, and some not-so-pretty ones, like the gap-toothed vulture. The environmentalists demanded -- and got a new, bigger, better, study about the vacation habits of the birds.
The American government believes the transmitters are important geopolitical assets, particularly because the Radio Liberty programming will be beamed at Soviet South Central Asia, home of an estimated 50 million Muslims. It is a volatile region, where little news of the outside world is now available, by radio or otherwise.
The Israeli government supported the American view, but the view of the Israeli public seems to go with the environmentalists. After all, one hears: What's the point of it all? Isn't the Cold War over?
Meanwhile, in America, the Bush administration was deciding to close down the Polish, Hungarian and Czech services of Radio Free Europe. As it stands now, those broadcasts, which played a critical role in bringing democracy to Eastern Europe, will be off the air in two years.
The administration made this decision, without congressional approval or consultation, despite the fact that the presidents of the three countries involved vigorously opposed the phase-out, despite the fact that just about every outside expert thinks it is premature.
Why? It's hard to pin down, but to some important extent, it was, as they say, ''budget-driven.'' The Office of Management and Budget saw a potential savings of $25 million per year. That is less than coffee money in OMB land, and probably less than the cost of swizzle sticks for the coffee.
What the budget-meisters were saying, in their infinite wisdom, was: What's the point? Isn't the Cold War over?
The lesson herein is broader than international radio broadcasting: When democracies relax, the environmentalists, the bookkeepers and other compassionate domestic types start making foreign and defense policy.
So, when Mr. Gorbachev is ousted by dictators, you end up with a Western foreign posture that may be fiscally more sound, environmentally more pure, domestically more compassionate and geopolitically more stupid.
That's all right when there is no threat. But, as we've just seen, there is.
Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''