The Gorbachev Predicament
How Obama's Political Challenges Resemble Gorbachev's
How Obama's Political Challenges Resemble Gorbachev's
January 19, 2011
Summary: Barack Obama has been compared to many past U.S. presidents. But an intriguing parallel has been overlooked -- that between Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In recent months, as U.S. President Barack Obama struggled to enact his legislative agenda and his party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, commentators have seized on any number of historical metaphors. Although comparisons of Obama to former U.S. Presidents Truman, Carter, Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton all have their merits, one intriguing parallel has been overlooked -- that between Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. Two areas of similarity are particularly noteworthy: the first is related to Obama's and Gorbachev's political instincts, strengths, and perils; the second has to do with the problem of Afghanistan and foreign policy more generally.
Both Obama and Gorbachev came to power because there was a broad domestic consensus for change, and their initial appeal was based in part on their ability to attract support across the political spectrum. In Gorbachev's case, this meant everyone from "conservative" reformers, who favored limited economic reforms but not political liberalization, to the most liberal and Western-minded members of the Communist Party and Soviet government. Similarly, Obama was able to appeal to "independent" voters and pundits who favored smaller, self-contained reforms, as well as to progressives who had a more sweeping agenda.
Gorbachev, much like Obama, was conciliatory by nature and tried to find a middle path whenever possible. Whether dealing with the economy, foreign policy, or political control, he tried to build consensus instead of pushing through the ideas of his more liberal supporters. Obama's approach to the stimulus package and health care reform echoed Gorbachev's: rather than advancing one program, he sought out compromises that would attract at least part of the Republican Party.
For a time, Gorbachev was able to retain more conservative people -- keeping on board, for example, old-guard communists such as Yegor Ligachev and the KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. As long as Gorbachev could convince them that he essentially shared their basic goals, Gorbachev was assured support from their organizations and the party's rank and file. But Gorbachev's search for a middle ground ultimately caused him difficulty. His policies were often muddled, even contradictory at times, and his supporters soon grew disenchanted with him. Vladislav Zubok, a historian and noted scholar on Gorbachev, wrote in his 2007 book, A Failed Empire, that whereas in Russian fairy tales a knight approaching a fork in the road has to choose one of three paths, Gorbachev tried to follow all three at once.
This depiction is particularly fitting for Gorbachev's last three years in power, as control of the country seemed to slip from his hands and the economic situation deteriorated. Unable to decide between the different proposals for economic reform and worried about their political feasibility, he threw his support behind one, then another, never quite committing to a single program.
Gorbachev's "swing to the right" in 1990 and early 1991, a period in which he ordered a crackdown on the independence movement in Lithuania, robbed him of still more support among liberals, who were already impatient with the slow pace of economic and social reforms. As a result, the Soviet left turned to Boris Yeltsin, then a rising political star.
Obama, too, can often seem like he is trying to follow several paths at the same time, on Afghanistan, Iran, health care, economic stimulus, and banking reform. His policies can feel like half-measures to many of his supporters. Progressives in the United States feel betrayed on health care, union rights, economic stimulus, and the regulation of the financial sector. Conservative figures, meanwhile, call on Obama to come to his senses and abandon what they see as his "socialist" agenda. For the moment, the left has no major alternative center -- no Yeltsin -- toward which it can gravitate.
Obama's and Gorbachev's political instincts are especially similar in terms of foreign policy. Both leaders took office when their respective country's prestige and global standing was at a low, a result of perceived arrogance and militarism. For the United States, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a general sense that Washington was too ready to use military means to achieve its foreign policy ends, dismayed allies and emboldened enemies.
By the end of the 1970s, the Soviet Union had overextended itself abroad, a process that culminated with its disastrous intervention in Afghanistan. The conflict was in its fifth year in 1985, when 73-year-old Konstantin Chernenko died and Gorbachev became general secretary. The Soviet Union's expansions into the developing world had undermined detente with the West; the intervention in Afghanistan was even more of a diplomatic disaster, shocking even many of the Soviet Union's staunchest supporters.
Gorbachev aimed to ease tensions with the United States, improve ties with Western Europe, and reinvigorate Soviet relations with the developing world. Much like Obama, he came to office believing that he could transform the international relations of his country by talking to its geopolitical rivals. For Gorbachev, this meant normalizing relations with China and the United States and promoting the idea of a "common European home," intended to make Cold War divisions on the continent obsolete.
In many respects, however, Gorbachev's attempts to reshape Soviet foreign policy -- like most of his other initiatives -- were quite cautious. Although he was critical of earlier Soviet policies in the developing world, he still believed that the Soviet Union had a crucial role to play there. But he thought that Moscow should focus more on the countries that really mattered rather than sinking money into unsavory regimes such as Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam. He pushed to expand Moscow's ties with countries such as Iran and India, yet he continued to support Moscow's older allies in the developing world. Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union's legitimacy and status were based, at least in part, on its support of the world's poorer countries, even if some of these countries had little strategic value.
Obama, too, has shown a mix of idealism and pragmatism in his foreign policy. Obama's campaign promises to engage with America's enemies, his June 2009 speech in Cairo, U.S. outreach to Iran, and, of course, his goal of eliminating nuclear weapons -- something Gorbachev also desired -- seemed to herald a truly transformational foreign policy. But two years into his presidency, some of his critics complain that many of his policies are merely new bottles for old wine. For example, as outreach to Iran has fizzled, Washington is now tightening the sanctions regime against Tehran. Despite some notable successes (the "reset" with Russia and the New START treaty), Obama has faced charges of naivete from the right, even as the chorus of disappointed supporters on his liberal flank grows louder.
No policy question highlights the similarity between Gorbachev and Obama as much as Afghanistan. Gorbachev recognized his predecessors' mistakes but, at the same time, realized that the consequences of a Soviet defeat could be dire for his country's international legitimacy and his own domestic support. He refused to give in to those who advised him to get out as quickly as possible. As he put it during one heated Politburo exchange, "Imperialism, they say, if it wins in Afghanistan, will go on the offensive." Gorbachev was a reformer, not a revolutionary; he was not out to overturn the Soviet Union's entire foreign policy posture. He spent three years trying to find a way out of Afghanistan that could still guarantee the survival of a pro-Soviet regime. Only when he became convinced that the Soviet presence was hopeless did he bring the troops home.
Obama has been thinking along broadly similar lines. In accounts such as Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, the president refuses to accept failure in Afghanistan even as he tries to avoid making an open-ended military commitment. He views those who advocate a full withdrawal or even a drastically reduced commitment as irresponsible -- both for what this would mean for Pakistan as well as U.S. legitimacy worldwide.
Afghanistan is dividing Obama's supporters, as it did Gorbachev's. Here again, in both the Soviet case and the current U.S. one, the search for a middle ground has created more alienation than understanding. Gorbachev's use of overwhelming force during the 1989 withdrawal horrified people such as his foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, and other liberal supporters. But the KGB was advocating the use of brutal military tactics, and Gorbachev felt he had to approve such measures or appear cavalier about the survival of the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul.
By 1987, two years after he came to power, Gorbachev's domestic reforms and major foreign policy initiatives had stalled. That summer, he told his aides that he had recognized that radical change was necessary, and that he was prepared to go "far, very far." Obama now finds himself at a similar crossroads. With unemployment stubbornly high, inequality growing, and most of his foreign policy program stymied, Obama, too, faces a choice: Does he listen to his more liberal supporters, pulling back from Afghanistan, engaging more directly with Iran, and taking a more forceful stand on Israeli settlement construction? Or does he continue to follow the middle path?
Ultimately, these parallels only hold so far. Even with all of its problems, the United States today is not the Soviet Union of 1987. But the comparison of Obama and Gorbachev does provide some insight into the advantages and pitfalls of their style of leadership. Being a unifying figure is a worthy goal, but in tumultuous times, trying to govern without partisans can also become very lonely. Part of Gorbachev's tragedy was that he lost the ability to form coalitions, a talent that served him well during his first few years in power. He became the hostage of disparate interest groups and politicians, without a support base of his own.
Obama can still avoid that fate. If Gorbachev's experience is any guide, Obama must define his agenda and be perceived as doing so. Obama's supporters in the United States are still eager for his leadership and would much prefer to unite behind him again than to splinter and cluster around less inspiring figures. By 1990, Gorbachev had largely stopped defining the direction of his country. Obama still has that possibility -- for now.
ARTEMY KALINOVSKY is Assistant Professor of East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan, to be published in May 2011.