While playing the peacemaker in the Persian Gulf war, Mikhail Gorbachev has one clear-cut goal in mind: He wants to make sure that the U. S. does not emerge from the war with a free hand to reshape the Mideast on its own terms.
Distasteful as that goal may seem to many Americans, Washington is headed for trouble if it tries to freeze Moscow out. President Bush chose the U. N. to help forge the anti-Saddam coalition and legitimize its efforts. Once the war is over, the Soviets could use their veto power at the U. N. Security Council to greatly complicate Bush's attempts to create his new world order--in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Soviets could also step up their arms shipments to such potentially troublesome states as Syria and Iran. And they could exacerbate the Arab-Israeli rivalries that have taken a backseat to the war effort.
WILD CARD. A wild card in future Soviet behavior is the power struggle now under way in Moscow. In recent months, conservatives who are chagrined at their country's declining prestige in the Middle East have pressured President Gorbachev into turning sharply to the right. Even the Foreign Ministry, which has pushed the Soviet opening to the Westin recent years, is now badly split. One group of officials backs Bush; the others, such as Special Envoy Yevgeniy Primakov, favor independent Soviet moves in the Middle East. If the U. S. were to ride roughshod over Soviet sensibilities, that could strengthen the hand of the hardliners.
It's little wonder the hardliners are upset. The Kremlin's rescue mission for Saddam comes just as Washington seems on the verge of vanquishing a top Soviet client, sending Moscow's influence in the region to an all-time low. In Kuwait and Iraq, Saddam's Soviet-made weapons lie twisted and burning, victims of America's high-tech arsenal.
Soviet conservatives feared that by backing Bush, Gorbachev was squandering goodwill built up over four decades of helping such friends as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. More important, they worry that if Bush crushes Saddam, he will wield awesome power over a region that's a mere 500 miles from the southern Soviet border. "Bush ran away with the store," says A. Richard Norton, a Mideast specialist at the International Peace Academy in New York. "The Soviets allowed themselves to be taken advantage of."
Americans should bear in mind that even a Gorbachev-brokered deal with Baghdad is unlikely to return the region to cold-war rivalries. Gorbachev abandoned that approach soon after coming to power in 1985. Since then, he has shunned ideology and set his Mideast policies on a realpolitik track. He has warmed to the Saudis, distanced himself from the Syrians, and curried favor with Israel by allowing hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate. The Kremlin also embraced the U. N. resolutions to pressure Saddam out of Kuwait.
For the moment, the competitive friction between Washington and Moscow is intense. Gorbachev doesn't want to see Saddam killed or ousted or Iraq dismembered. But Bush would now find it hard to accept a postwar regional lineup that includes the Iraqi leader, and at the very least, he wants to do so much damage to the Iraqi war machine that it will not be a threat to its neighbors for many years. A U. S.-led military push far into Iraq would make the Soviets extremely jittery, and they dread the large postwar American presence in the gulf that many analysts consider inevitable. Bush would argue that those are his decisions to make.
JET BET. Where Gorbachev may more reasonably grab the initiative is in shaping the postwar region. The Soviets are already playing up to Iran in a bid to bolster a balance of power in the Persian Gulf. In Soviet thinking, such a balance would prevent a vacuum that the U. S. military could fill. Last fall, the Soviets delivered the first shipments of advanced MiG-29 fighters to Tehran, and there are reports that the Soviets are training Iranian naval personnel. The Iranians, who clashed with the Soviets over the war in Afghanistan, are now conduits for Soviet peace feelers. Says Robert Legvold, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University: "The media has not paid enough attention to growing Iranian and Soviet ties. The Iranian goal is to keep the Americans out."
Through his peace initiative, Gorbachev has already regained substantial ground in the Arab world. If he can beat the odds and broker a real peace, he will be a big winner. But even if Saddam rejects the plan or Bush presses ahead with a ground war, Gorbachev has still succeeded in one sense: He has served notice that the Soviets had better be seated at any postwar conference table.