Gorbachev's Tilt Toward Saddam

What turned Mikhail Gorbachev from apparent pillar of the new world order into would-be rescuer of Saddam Hussein? The Soviet leader's behavior in the Persian Gulf war should provoke Western believers in a ``good Gorbachev'' to reconsider their basic premises. Though seeming inconsistent, Gorbachev's Gulf actions may have been part of a single strategy. That is the view of Evgueni Novikov, an expert on Soviet-Iraqi relations. He thinks this strategy included the Leninist tactic of saying one thing while doing another: in this case, proclaiming support of US policy in forums such as the UN while continuing to help Iraq behind the scenes.

Novikov's expertise is hard-won: He advised the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party on Middle East affairs for two decades before defecting to the West in 1988. He now serves as a consultant to the Jamestown Foundation and visiting professor at the Naval War College. Last August, he became one of the first US Kremlin-watchers to predict Gorbachev's tilt toward Iraq.

I don't believe the Soviets initiated the idea of attacking Kuwait,'' Novokov says. ``But they welcomed it.'' In his view, they saw the Iraqi invasion as an opportunity to promote objectives: oil-price increases that benefit Moscow, arms sales, and greater leverage over the Gulf states. He says the Kremlin received $4 billion in credits from Saudi Arabia during the crisis -- plus new diplomatic relations.

By now we know that Gorbachev stepped up arms shipments to Saddam after the Gulf crisis began. We know Soviet military transport aircraft were delivering tons of hardware, including surface-to-air missiles, to an airport near Baghdad at the rate of 12 flights a day from August to mid-January.

We know that in January allied warships intercepted a Soviet freighter near Jordan loaded with rocket launchers, Soviet tank parts, and explosives. Iraq was the only logical destination for this cargo. Jordan doesn't use Soviet arms. We know trucks carried military cargoes into Iraq from Jordan in mid-February.

We know from a December Tass report that at least 1,000 Soviet ``specialists'' had ``chosen'' to remain in Iraq as volunteers. Novikov says, ``No Soviet adviser who serves abroad is exercising his own will; they're all under command.''

IT is important to distinguish what we know from what we only suspect.

But we cannot dismiss reports that fall short of total certainty: for example, communications intercepts that suggest Soviet advisers accompanied Iraqi troops or intelligence reports that the Soviet embassy in Riyadh served as a ``forward observer'' for Iraq's Scud missile attacks. Even if some reports are inaccurate, the pattern is clear: While publicly denouncing Iraqi aggression, the Kremlin was quietly intensifying support of the aggressor.

Even in its overt diplomatic maneuvers, Gorbachev's government worked overtime to substitute a diplomatic stalemate for an allied military victory. And the Soviet media put on an anti-American festival, dwelling on pro-Saddam rallies and accepting Baghdad's claims about alleged US atrocities.

This is precisely the sort of Soviet behavior that many of us thought had ended in 1989. Why should the Kremlin care about protecting an Arab dictator?

Gorbophiles respond by emphasizing the areas in which their hero cooperated with Western policy. They point out that Gorbachev could have used his veto power to block any UN action against Saddam; that is undoubtedly what the Kremlin would have done a decade ago.

The Gorbophiles are right to welcome changes in Soviet behavior, but wrong to believe the cause is the Soviet president's personality rather than the widening economic-technological gap between East and West. If faced with the same circumstances, Leonid Brezhnev might have behaved just as Gorbachev did.

Another mistake is to ignore areas where Soviet behavior has not improved. Gorbachev could have honored the anti-Saddam embargo by removing advisers and ending arms shipments. If the cold war were really over, he would have.

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