When he took over the top job in the Soviet Union in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev wasn't tasked with -- nor did he envision -- dismantling the Soviet system. Yet after six years of economic and political reforms, the unintended consequence of Gorbachev's restructuring was the 74-year-old empire's collapse. In his prescient Granta essay on Gorbachev in 1990, the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the Soviet leader's chief talent as precisely this demolition" of "the second to the last remaining monolithic empire of the twentieth century without the use of force, without panic, in peace." In assessing the state of Europe, and the world that winter, Enzensberger concluded that more of these new demolition experts were needed since "renunciation, reduction and dismantling" would be the new touchstones of a more modest epoch.
Enzensberger's words still hold true two decades later. The United States desperately needs that kind of demolition expert. Consider the Pentagon, an immense edifice with a near-trillion-dollar budget that's half or more of the entire Soviet GDP circa 1990. Consider our Afghanistan misadventure, which requires a Gorbachev-type figure to strategically frame an orderly withdrawal. Consider the empire of bases we maintain overseas, and our reluctance to close even one despite massive local opposition.
Alas, it doesn't appear President Obama will be the Gorbachev this country needs. For instance, when the president was looking for an Afghanistan exit plan last November, the Pentagon gave him only one: an additional surge of 30-40,000 troops, according to 'Bob Woodward's latest book. Given war powers by the constitution, Obama watched the Pentagon take this authority away from him. "Bluntly put," writes Andrew Bacevich in TomDispatch, "the Pentagon gamed the process to exclude any possibility of Obama rendering a decision not to its liking."
What about the gamer-in-chief Robert Gates? The Pentagon chief is, like Gorbachev, the consummate insider. He has the ear of Democrats and Republicans alike. '"Unlike his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, Gates has already cleaned house at the Pentagon. "Gates has dismissed two service secretaries, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the air force chief of staff, the commanding admiral of Central Command, two commanding generals in Afghanistan, and the surgeon general of the army," writes Matthew Moten in Foreign Affairs.
Gates has even bigger plans. He wants to close an entire command, eliminate 50 generals and admirals, and reduce private contractors. He plans to end some big-ticket items like the F-22 fighter plane and the C-17 transport plane. In all, he's proposing $100 billion in savings over the next five years, explicitly channeling Eisenhower in his frontal assault on the military-industrial complex.
This take-charge attitude, particularly in contrast with Obama's apparent deference toward the generals, has generated glowing tributes to the Pentagon head in Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times. "A self-described protector of institutions," Fred Kaplan writes in Foreign Policy, Gates "has also, in less than four years on the job, changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara."
Like Gorbachev, Robert Gates has no intention of bringing down the Pentagon. His reforms are designed to make the institution stronger. His attack on Pentagon bureaucracy and overhead is meant to free up money that can be spent on prosecuting America's wars. Gates wants a larger Pentagon budget, has no intention of dismantling our empire of bases, and pushed hard for the surge in Afghanistan.
But the issue here isn't intended but unintended consequences. Are Obama and Gates unwittingly teaming up to launch a restructuring that will dismantle what they hold so dear?
The first test of this Gorbachev hypothesis will be the Deficit Commission that the president set up to look at ways to cut the $1.3 trillion gap between what the government spends each year and what it receives in revenue. There are rumors that the commission, which meets in secret, will propose a cut in Social Security for everyone except the very poor. Other rumors suggest that the military budget will be on the cutting block as well. Senator and commission member Dick Durbin (D-IL) says that "cutting the military is on the table, which would mean fewer bases, less personnel and less brass." The commission's report comes out in December. Calling for belt-tightening at the Pentagon would set an important precedent.
The second test will be Afghanistan. If it's true Obama seeks a viable exit strategy, then we might witness a battle of wills between the president and the Pentagon leading up to the much-touted July 2011 deadline. Obama has argued that U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan on this date; General Petraeus, on the other hand, argues that July 2011 "is the start of talking about transition" (which Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Gareth Porter calls a dangerous bait-and-switch maneuver in his Focal Points blog post). If his position holds sway, Obama will have reasserted his presidential authority and the generals will just have to start putting away their toys.
The third test will be public opinion. Americans want a more modest military and foreign policy. According to the latest Global Views polling, 91 percent of Americans want Washington to focus on problems at home rather than address challenges from abroad. Only 24 percent believe that the United States plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to 10 years ago. And by 2020, most people think China and the United States will wield comparable global influence. If these numbers continue along the same trajectory, there will be considerable domestic pressure to reduce U.S. commitments abroad and adjust to what the pollsters call "constrained internationalism."
These are perhaps slender threads to hang on to. The Pentagon is huge, and our efforts to undermine its foundations often seem quixotic. But deep and profound crisis made it possible for a Gorbachev to emerge in the Soviet Union. If nothing else, the United States surely finds itself today in a crisis of Soviet-style proportions.