As Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepares for the crucial Communist Party congress this week, most American experts in and out of government have concluded that his reforms would probably continue--possibly at a headier pace--if Gorbachev himself lost power.
"He is father of the revolution," a senior Administration official said, "but the children of his revolution have moved beyond him. Other leaders might push things along faster, like democratization, market economy, withdrawal from foreign commitments."
But to the United States, this official said, Gorbachev offers something that none of his adversaries can match: That something is stability, and for now the Bush Administration values stability more than accelerated reform.
"The faster the change, the greater risk of instability" in the Soviet Union, this official said. The explosive caldron of change could bubble over, he said, with enormous and possibly disastrous consequences for Europe.
Many outside analysts agree with this analysis.
"Gorbachev is less indispensable to reform than he was a year ago," said the RAND Corp.'s Arnold L. Horelick, a former senior CIA analyst of Soviet affairs. "Indeed, he may have become part of the problem. But he is also indispensable to reasonable stability in the short term. So the dilemma is whether it's riskier to accept stasis with Gorbachev or accept the risk of doing without him."
"We are on the eve of momentous events," said Walter Laquer, a Soviet scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Gorbachev is fighting for survival."
How he will attempt to meet this challenge--move left or right, quit as general secretary of the party but remain as Soviet president, retire altogether--is anyone's guess. So are the consequences if he retires voluntarily or is forced out by his opponents.
"The Soviet Union, for so many years the most predictable country, is now the least predictable country," observed Laquer, author of a new book, "Soviet Union 2000: Reform or Revolution."
The Bush Administration has decided to continue working with Gorbachev at least until it can complete arms reduction talks and German unification accords. It has formulated its policies not to jeopardize Gorbachev's political standing at home.
"We're not betting that he succeeds or even that he'll be around in five years," a senior State Department official said, "only that he's the most efficacious way to get there (into the mid-1990s) without violence.
"We want the democratic movement in Eastern Europe to continue, we want the Soviet forces out of Germany, and we want German unification, we want START and CFE," he added, referring to treaties under negotiation to reduce nuclear and conventional military forces. "These goals could be endangered if he fell."
Most European states, particularly Germany and France, are even more frightened of the possible effects of Gorbachev's departure than is the United States. To help Gorbachev, they are pushing for a multibillion-dollar economic aid program for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's fall, they believe, would be catastrophic for the West.
Some American scholars are equally concerned. Without Gorbachev, said Columbia University's Marshall Shulman, his reforms would be "put on hold" and "disorder and even chaos" could follow. "He's still the linchpin holding that polarized situation together," said Shulman, a professor emeritus of international relations.
Not so, argued Allen Lynch, a colleague of Shulman, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Gorbachev was the "right man at the right time" to create the breakthrough in East-West relations, he wrote. But fears that his domestic failures will force a reversal of Soviet foreign policy and even Gorbachev's downfall are misplaced.
"The disappearance or marginalization of Gorbachev would have a detectable impact on Western international interests," Lynch acknowledged. But "it is now unlikely," he wrote, "that a change in Soviet leadership, or a change in the pace, scope and character of reform, would have a corresponding impact on East-West relations and the most vital geopolitical interests of the United States."
The Soviets need a benign international environment to pursue their domestic reforms, Lynch said. Conservatives in the Soviet Union accept this fact. Moreover, Lynch maintained, Soviet leaders recognize that foreign aggressiveness, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, causes a backlash in the West that far outweighs whatever benefits are to be gained.
These factors mean that Gorbachev's foreign policies would continue without Gorbachev, Lynch predicted. "The sooner the West relinquishes its fascination with Gorbachev, the sooner it can assume responsibilities of a sober, long-term analysis of the foundations of its relationship with the U.S.S.R. and their consequences for peace," he said.
U.S. policy toward Gorbachev reflects President Bush's generally cautious approach around the world, particularly in relations toward China. There, after last year's massacre of protesters in Tian An Men Square, the Administration refused to distance itself from the regime as far as U.S. and Chinese liberals urged.
More radical reformers are challenging Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. But as with China, U.S. officials do not believe they are yet capable of running the country.
"If Gorbachev is replaced," predicted the Administration official, "it will be by a right-center coalition--conservatives, the army and KGB (secret police), the party bureaucracy. It will fail within a year or two, but those will be tumultuous years. It will probably show hostility to the outside world, and the Europeans will get very anxious in view of the Soviet nuclear power. But such a regime will not have much energy left over for foreign adventures."
Argued another senior Administration official, who also asked not to be identified: "Gorbachev personally provides internal stability as the center of gravity now--a magnet powerful enough as father of the revolution to provide a center that's not really there--to keep forces on the left and the right from flying off in a way that society could not tolerate.
"In terms of U.S. policy, we recognize that Gorbachev is in control of the apparatus, foreign policy and defense, which we must deal with," this official said. "He is still capable of delivering--we see no sign of his weakening on this matter--so he's not expendable."
Whether Gorbachev's disappearance would accelerate political disintegration, Horelick said, would depend on the circumstances. "But I am sympathetic to the Administration's giving precedence to stability over reform," he said. "It's still better to bet on Gorbachev to weather the storm.
"However, in various subtle ways, the United States also must think about not having all its eggs in one basket," Horelick said. Boris N. Yeltsin, the populist reform enthusiast who was recently elected president of the huge Russian Republic, "must be taken seriously," he said.
No matter how much the United States might prefer faster reform, said a U.S. official, the Administration would undermine Gorbachev--and risk a volatile, unpredictable future in the Soviet Union--if it moved away from him.
"He is the symbol of perestroika, the engine behind the reforms," he said. "What he stands for is as important as him personally. Besides, how do you distance yourself from him? We keep in touch with opposition figures through our Moscow embassy. What more can you do?"