Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in a striking departure from official U.S. policy, predicted Friday that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will fail in his reform efforts and be replaced by a hard-liner who will be "far more hostile" to the West.
The Pentagon chief said Gorbachev faces an entrenched, conservative Soviet bureaucracy that ultimately will thwart his policies and drive him from office.
"My personal view is that the task that he set for himself of trying to fundamentally reform the Soviet system is incapable of occurring," Cheney said in an interview taped Friday and to be aired today on CNN's "Evans & Novak" program.
'Far More Hostile'
"If I had to guess today, I would guess that he would ultimately fail," Cheney said. "That is to say that he will not be able to reform the Soviet economy to turn it into an efficient, modern society. And that when that happens, he's likely to be replaced by somebody who will be far more hostile than he's been in terms of his attitude towards the West."
Official Administration policy is that Gorbachev is firmly in control of the Soviet government despite some internal opposition and will continue to be the nation's leader for the foreseeable future.
Gorbachev's purge of 110 members of the policy-making Central Committee and the Central Auditing Commission this week was interpreted by American analysts as further evidence of his consolidating power by removing hard-line elements in the Soviet bureaucracy.
No senior U.S. official had predicted publicly that Gorbachev would be forced from office by conservative opponents.
A Cheney aide explained that the defense secretary's comments were "personal opinions" and not U.S. government policy. The State Department referred questions on the incident to the Pentagon, where a spokesman said that Cheney's responses were "guesswork, not a considered statement of policy."
"It's not inconsistent with what Cheney has been saying," chief Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard said. "He was asked his personal opinion. This is not a completely unfounded notion. It's a guess based on 70 years of experience with Soviet leadership and the almost intractable economic problems and the intransigent bureaucracy Mr. Gorbachev has to deal with."
Cheney used the prediction to justify his position that U.S. troop levels in Europe should not be cut in response to promised reductions in Soviet military forces.
"I think that would be a big mistake," he said. "I think it would undo basic commitments to the (Western) alliance, and until we know that Gorbachev is for real and that the changes he wants to bring about are irreversible, it'd be a terrible mistake for us to withdraw from Europe."
He said, however, that he believes that the Western European nations should pay a greater share of the costs of defending Europe.
"We've got to work to try to get the Europeans to do more," he said.
On a related matter, Cheney said that a widening German-American rift over whether to negotiate the removal of short-range nuclear weapons from West Germany might not be resolved by the time of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit conference at the end of May.
"We've been through this kind of thing before . . .," Cheney said. "Clearly the political situation in Germany today is a delicate one from (West German Chancellor Helmut) Kohl's standpoint. Will it be resolved before the NATO summit? I don't know. It may be. On the other hand, it may not get resolved for a while."