Dissecting Obama's ‘perestroika'
By Dmitry Shlapentokh
The election of United States president-elect Barack Obama, who, as many
believe, is ready to offer an olive branch of peace even to the US's sworn
enemies, has been hailed by many as a means of redirecting the imperial
aggressive course of Obama's predecessor, President George W Bush.
Some even compare him to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, known for
making his own dramatic changes to foreign policy. In the 1980s, the Soviet
economy was experiencing serious problems - much like the US faces now - which
pushed Gorbachev to make some difficult decisions for the future of the
Still, one should be cautious when making an analogy between
the USSR in 1985 and the US in 2008. With all of its problems, the Soviet
economy was not in dire straights; it was expanding, or, at least, not
contracting. There was certainly no threat that major auto factories would
reduce production or even close. There was no rise in unemployment or
widespread hunger. With all of its problems, the system was stable and workable
and, if rearranged along the line of Gorbachev's predecessor, Yuri Andropov -
an authoritarian/semi-totalitarian regime with elements of a market economy -
the USSR could well have flourished. As a matter of fact, China demonstrates
that this model can, indeed, produce an economic miracle.
The problems behind the sharp deterioration of stability in the USSR which led
to its eventual collapse weren't the result of Gorbachev's moves. This notion
that everything can be reduced to the actions of one person at the top is
hardly accepted by most Western pundits, who choose to find the deep-seated
roots of change, though it could very well work to explain Obama's
The vast majority of the American public - or, at least, those who voted for
Obama - equated the country's problems with Bush, seen as a naive star-struck
"girl" who suffered from a variety of seductions. They include not just
neo-conservative cabals - hence the blunders in foreign policy - but also
former Federal Reserve chairman Allan Greenspan and his crew who abandoned the
healthy Keynesian regulation in the economy and opted for an absolutely
unregulated market, in a 18th century or Chicago School of Economics fashion.
The problem with the economy, as with other problems, is reduced to a few wrong
advisors and could be fixed at least in a few years with a different assortment
of pundits. Still this is an illusion.
The point is that these problems have much deeper roots that the present
occupant of the White House did not solely plant, although he did indeed speed
up the growth of a problem that started long ago. The US had become a "service"
economy, a "financial bubble", long before Bush. The proliferation of
bureaucracy, which not only produced no wealth but actually consumed it, was
hardly a Bush phenomenon; nor was the assumption that consumption is a key
element of growth. (With positive post-modernist playfulness, economic gurus
for decades proclaimed that consumption is nothing but an advanced form of
The maintenance of a high standard of living, and even its rise for a few, was
based on increasing dollar emissions and, of course, borrowing. In fact, the
entire US economy lives the same way as a majority of its citizens - on credit
cards. And, at present, the arrangements seem to be over, or rapidly moving in
this direction. It is clear that faith in the US's ability to be a reliable
creditor has been badly shaken by the present-day financial crisis, while the
days of Washington solving its money problems through increased borrowing with
little obligation are no more.
And while Gorbachev's problems could well have been solved in the context of
the Soviet system, Obama can hardly do much in the context of the present
socio-economic arrangement. Changing the US in line with the Chinese model -
embarking on a dramatic and harsh intervention in economic/social life - is
highly unlikely, barring some unexpected events like a major war or a terrorist
Consequently, Obama will most likely find that state resources are quickly
dwindling and this could well lead to a sharp decline in the US's global
presence. From this perspective, Obama's "perestroika", indeed, could be
structurally similar to that of Gorbachev's. And, as in the case of the USSR's
global retreat, the US's departure could create not just an opportunity but
also serious problems, even for those who regard themselves more as a US foe
than friend. Russia could well be an example.
For starters, the US could retreat or drastically reduce its presence in
different global regions. The most dramatic would be a departure from the
Middle East, starting with Iraq. And this would likely have the most serious
implications for Russia.
Obama's desire to disengage from Iraq is not caused by his naivete or even
pro-Muslim sympathies - as conservative critics assure the public - but by the
cold calculation of reality: the war requires more troops and cannot be fought
just by those who flew combat missions there several times, even when their
contracts expired long ago. Obama definitely hates to see the US in quick
retreat along all fronts in the Middle East and stated that the US should
concentrate its resources in Afghanistan - which is much more of a threat than
Still, it remains to be seen whether increasing US forces in Afghanistan would
make much of a difference. One should remember that the USSR kept some 150,000
troops in Afghanistan, much more than the US would have even after the planned
increase, with a constant flow of fresh recruits.
There were also a substantial number of regular Afghanistan forces. Still,
nothing came from this. One could well assume that the US might face the same
fate and that its departure from Afghanistan could follow close on the heels of
But, the sharp reduction of the US presence in the Middle East would have
complex and far-reaching implications for all countries in the region and
beyond - including Russia. Most clear is the implication of Afghanistan.
Regardless of the assertions of some Taliban leaders that they have no
ambitions beyond driving the foreign forces from the country, the geopolitical
vacuum would push jihadis in all directions. And they would not be much
different from the US, who, sensing the weakness of the late Soviet republic,
and even more so, post-Soviet Russia, would expand eastward and south, engaging
in a row of "preemptive" wars.
This policy has no connection with the personality of a particular president or
even of his party affiliation. It was carried out not only during the
administration of the "fascist" and "imperialist" Bush but also by the former
US president Bill Clinton. And it remains to be the case. The jihadis, sensing
the weakness of the US, will spread in all directions when they feel they will
find little resistance and good recruiting grounds. Central Asia is clearly one
of these places.
Russia and its Central Asian neighbors, sensing the danger, are busily joining
military forces. But they might not hold out against a protracted guerilla
warfare of the Afghanistan type. Even if the guerrillas could not win an open
battle, they could well damage pipelines and create problems for the extraction
of gas and oil, one of the major reasons Russia is so interested in Central
The US's weakness could also lead to its rapprochement with Iran. The
reluctance of Bush to discuss the matter with Iran was not due to his personal
stubbornness but to much more serious considerations. Negotiation with Iran
would have been an implicit acknowledgement that Iran is actually a peer of the
US, at a time when imperial grandness could well explode as the financial
bubble bursts, despite the assertion that the US economy "fundamentally is
solid". Obama could do what Gorbachev did with his sworn enemy, Ronald Reagan.
While this move would be pleasing to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who,
following Reagan, might praise Obama as a man who would "tear down this wall",
such an event could hardly please Russia. Not only would Eurasianists' dreams
about a grand Russia-Iran axis finally be buried, but also Russia would find
other, much more serious, problems. Iran would not only be able to diversify
its weapons but also could send gas and oil through routes bypassing Russia
entirely. All of this would increasingly deplete Russia's economy, which is
already feeling the pinch of falling oil prices and the general problems of the
The sense that a weak US could be more of a problem for Russia than a strong
and even aggressive state was articulated by Sergei Kurginian, a well-known
Russian observer. He stated in one public discussion that "Russia should look
with nostalgia at the departing Bush administration".
Indeed, he asserted, it was Bush who, engaging in war with Islam, diverted
Islam's attention from Russia and made oil expensive. This era might well be
over; and, as he implied, the US's weakness in general could create a lot of
problems for Russia. Certainly, Moscow is now waiting for Obama's "perestroika"
anxiously, gearing up to deal with its implications and potential fallout.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.