THE halls of government, think tanks, universities, councils, and salons in Washington are alive with the debate over Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader's United Nations speech has made the discussion even more intense. The theme is one of caution mixed with skepticism and, in some cases, outright concern. The task in the coming months will be to sort out credible reassessments from pressures for a continued negative view of the Soviet Union which flow from substantial vested interests based on a Soviet threat.
The cautious approach is undoubtedly justified. The declared ideological base of the Marxist-Leninist movement is antipathetic to democracy and democratic principles. The post-World War II record of the Soviets has been one marked by aggression and by the support of movements that have harmed US interests.
Soviet strategic weapons have the capacity to destroy the United States. In numerical terms, Soviet armed strength is superior to the forces of NATO. Eastern Europe is still under Russian control.
The task that Mr. Gorbachev has set for himself in reforming the Soviet structure faces heavy obstacles; he may not succeed. No one can discount the danger that the US and its European allies may draw apart as a result of the Russian initiatives or that abrupt changes may awaken old antagonisms in Europe. Any administration in Washington would be prudent to move carefully in assessing and responding to dramatic new gestures from Moscow.
In the midst of the debate, however, are some surprising statements from credible experts. Former US government officials, including retired military officers, have returned from Moscow to report that major changes are indeed taking place. They quote, without apparent skepticism, Soviet sources that say the communist state has given up its objective of world revolution.
Reputable scholars of Soviet military doctrine state, without challenge, that the Warsaw Pact was, in fact, not organized for offensive purposes but as a response to the incorporation of West Germany into NATO.
Other experts point out that, although the Soviets have numerical superiority in tanks and other field weapons, the West has the edge in quality. They suggest that the Soviet leader's latest initiative is based not only on the need for domestic economic adjustment, but also on a recognition of the basic weaknesses of Eastern European military forces. The consensus in current discussions is that the Soviets do not seek war.
At the same time, underlying the discussions is clear evidence of concern over the implications for many in Washington of a broadly accepted reduction in tensions with the USSR. For more than 40 years, the primary focus of US strategic policy has been on the Soviet threat. That threat has been cited not only in support of private institutions, but also as justification for US programs ranging from substantial military buildups to economic assistance.
A substantial superstructure of institutes, associations, and consultants has been built, much of it on official funds, to support and study responses to the perceived Soviet threat. That superstructure has been encouraged and fueled by many who have themselves suffered under past Soviet regimes and whose hope has been to see continued US support for total dismantling of the Soviet system. Suddenly events appear to remove the grounds on which so much of this structure has been built; discussions turn to the possibility of substantial cuts in those budgets that have supported measures and agencies to oppose the Soviet threat.
These discussions in Washington suggest the lines along which the major debates over policy will flow, both inside the government and outside, in the months ahead. A significant portion of the Washington governmental and institutional community will support the thesis that major changes are taking place in the USSR and in Soviet foreign and defense policies. Broad agreement will exist on the need for a prudent response, in close cooperation with US allies. The argument will proceed over how rapid and how forthcoming that response should be. And it is in this argument that Washington and the nation will have to sort out the opposition to positive responses based genuinely on experience and supportable assessments of Soviet intentions from those based on the desire to preserve an infrastructure created out of the Soviet threat. That will not be easy, since those involved may themselves not be able to clearly identify their motives.
For the nation and the world, however, this sorting out must be done. Vested interests will be challenged and possibly damaged. But to cling, under the pressure of these interests, to an assessment of the threat from Moscow that may now be modified by events is to risk placing the US at odds, not only with a changing USSR, but also with its allies in Europe.