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Is Obama Like Gorbachev?

By David Warren

There is nothing new under the sun: and I mean, nothing. It is a point brought home to us with increasing force by the expansion of the Internet. Conceive of an "original idea." Now, select two or more keywords suggested by it. Use them as search terms, and you will soon find that, say, 438,000 other people have entertained said "original idea," and a dozen are currently blogging on it.

Before beginning today's column, my search terms were "Gorbachev" and "Obama."

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Yes: a lot of people have entertained the idea, that Mikhail Gorbachev was to the late great Soviet Union, what Barack Obama is to the surviving United States -- the leader who reforms so many things so quickly that his country suddenly disappears. One recalls the speed with which the first Soviet head of state to be born after the October Revolution became its last head of state. It took him about three years: just less than the time of one U.S. presidential term. (Though he had already taken three years to warm up, as General Secretary of the Communist Party.)

It is, today, a little-known fact that Gorbachev did not bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, on purpose. Those who still detect a glint in his eye would do well to respect his persistent denials. He was sincerely trying to reform the place. He was walking a dog with powerful jaws, but rather loose teeth; he tried to adapt it to a vegetarian diet; it died.

The poor dictator inherited not only an economy going bankrupt by even socialist standards; but a war in Afghanistan that was being lost, against an utterly disorganized enemy from another century; to say nothing of half-a-dozen other imperial missions, in exotic third-world locations, that were not going well. By merely liberating the little West Indian island of Grenada, President Reagan was able to send a hollow sound through the hearts of aspiring Communist revolutionaries all over the world.

The comparison between Gorbachev and Obama is apt on few levels. The chief difference is between the U.S. of 2009, and the USSR of 1985; between a huge, decentralized, open economy, and the society it serves; and a much smaller, very centralized, command economy, and the society serving it. These circumstances are not even remotely comparable, and one must be a fool indeed to play with a moral, economic, or ideological "equivalence" between the two old superpowers. Which is not to say such fools aren't numerous.

Nor are the two men, themselves, remotely comparable in their backgrounds, or political outlook. Gorbachev, for instance, had come up from tractor driver, not through elite schools including Harvard Law; he lacked the narcissism that constantly seeks self-reflection through microphones and cameras, or the sense that everything is about him.

On the other hand, some interesting comparisons could be made between the thuggish party machine of Chicago, which raised Obama as its golden boy; and the thuggish party machine of Moscow, which presented Gorbachev as it's most attractive face.

Both men have been praised for their wonderful temperaments, and their ability to remain unperturbed by approaching catastrophe. But again, the substance is different, for Gorbachev's temperament was that of a survivor of many previous catastrophes.

Yet they do have one major thing in common, and that is the belief that, regardless of what the ruler does, the polity he rules must necessarily continue. This is perhaps the most essential, if seldom acknowledged, insight of the post-modern "liberal" mind: that if you take the pillars away, the roof will continue to hover in the air.

Gorbachev seemed to assume, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and then beyond it, that his Communist Party would recover from any temporary setbacks, and that the long-term effects of his glasnost and perestroika could only be to make it bigger and stronger.

There is a corollary of this largely unspoken assumption: that no matter what you do to one part of a machine, the rest of the machine will continue to function normally.

A variant of this is the frequently expressed denial of the law of unintended consequences: the belief that, if the effect you intend is good, the actual effect must be similarly happy.

Very small children, the mad, and certain extinct primitive tribes, have shared in this belief system, but only the fully college-educated liberal has the vocabulary to make it sound plausible.

With an incredible rapidity, America's status as the world's pre-eminent superpower is now passing away. This is a function both of the nearly systematic abandonment of U.S. interests and allies overseas, with metastasizing debt and bureaucracy on the home front.

And while I think the U.S. has the structural fortitude to survive the Obama presidency, it will be a much-diminished country that emerges from the "new physics" of hope and change.

Copyright The Ottawa Citizen

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