What Obama Can Learn from Gorbachev
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” That biblical quotation certainly applies to Mikhail Gorbachev, a man not honored enough for the example he set and whose past practices and recent cautions about Afghanistan should be heeded by Barack Obama. Or, on a secular note, if the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t cut it for you, take German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s praise for the former Soviet leader at the ceremony marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, which he helped destroy: “You courageously allowed things to happen, and that was much more than we could have expected.”
The hero’s reception granted Gorbachev when he accompanied the German leader across the Bornholmer Street bridge to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the city’s division was credit long overdue. As The New York Times reported: “More than 1,000 people lined the bridge Monday night under gray skies and a steady drizzle to hear the chancellor speak, but their loudest cheers came when she thanked Mr. Gorbachev for the reforming attitude he brought to the Soviet leadership that helped make the events of that historic night possible.” The crowd, chanting “Gorby, Gorby, Gorby,” understood that he had done something unique for a world leader: He admitted the error of his system’s ways and radically reversed its course.
The surrender of immense political power, personal as well as international in scope, is something we never expect from leaders, but Gorbachev set a model of self-sacrifice for a larger purpose that one wishes others would follow. How rare in history for a leader of such great standing to surrender his position, along with its abundance of personal perquisites, for the larger common good. How unexpected for the leader of a military colossus to turn swords into plowshares.
That is what Gorbachev did, beginning with his bold outreach to Western leaders including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, prompting the latter to say, “I like Mr. Gorbachev; we can do business together.” The British prime minister influenced President Reagan to take a similarly open stance, and when Gorbachev reciprocated, the Cold War effectively came to an end. Gorbachev’s words were followed by actions, beginning with suspension of the scheduled deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. That was followed with an even bolder proposal to cut both the Soviet and U.S. nuclear arsenals by half and then act to eliminate them altogether. Most important for the current moment was Gorbachev’s decisive moves to reduce the Soviet troop presence in Afghanistan, followed by his 1988 announcement of the full withdrawal of troops from that country.
Gorbachev drew on his experience in a CNN interview Sunday during which he again played the part of peacemaker, urging Obama to pull troops out of Afghanistan. “I think that our experience deserves attention,” the former Soviet president said. He recommended that the U.S., in the hope of bringing an end to “the long suffering of the [Afghan] people,” focus on “dialogue” and that “withdrawal from Afghanistan should be the goal.”
Unfortunately, it seems from media leaks that President Obama is moving in the opposite direction. The speculation now is that he will increase U.S. forces by a number slightly less than the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has requested, a decision that would make no sense at all. If the goal is, as McChrystal’s report defined it, to rebuild Afghan civil society from the ground up, something on the order of the half-million troops that were dispatched to Vietnam will be required. But that cannot be done without a draft, and we all know that outcome would not be politically acceptable to either the Democratic or Republican party.
Nor is such nation-building advisable, even if the American public and the treasury would support it. Our war in Afghanistan is no more warranted than the one the Soviets waged. Ironically, they were opposing Muslim fanatics we supplied with Stinger rockets and whose descendants we now blame for terrorism. In the name of fighting Soviet imperialism, our CIA recruited the worst of the worst and called them freedom fighters until we renamed them terrorists. We got it terribly wrong then, and yet we still insist that we know what we are doing in that country.
When Gorbachev came to power he, like Obama, inherited a war that was not in the interest of his nation. If the response of a Soviet dictator was to end it, might we not be justified in expecting the enlightened president of a democratic society to do the same?