COLUMN LEFT : Look Who’s Calling Him a Good Guy : Praise for Shevardnadze is mostly from the West because he was its patsy.


The undistinguished career of Eduard A. Shevardnadze as Soviet foreign minister glowed in the farewell tributes of his Western fans as if he had been Talleyrand. From Secretary of State James A. Baker III, from the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, from the Western world, came testaments to the deep personal friendship borne for the white-haired Georgian, mingled with strophes about his vision and reforming zeal.

Whatever Shevardnadze’s achievements earlier in his career--battling organized crime in his native Georgia--and whatever opportunities the future might still hold (for by no means should he be counted entirely out of the game), his term as foreign minister was a classic example of how to play a weak hand badly.

Entirely ignorant of international affairs when he was first drafted by Mikhail Gorbachev, he never seemed to pick up much beyond the propensity--delightful from NATO’s point of view--to surrender with scarcely a pretense of struggle to the propositions of his opposite numbers at the negotiating table.

He was hailed as “Mr. Yes” to distinguish him from “Mr. No,” Andrei A. Gromyko, who was the senior Soviet professional in the conduct of foreign affairs for four decades. But Gromyko was a knowledgeable person imbued with a certain world view--he would have called it “revolutionary"--that emerged in often surprisingly humane and comical ways in his memoirs, as when he recalled how sad he and his colleagues were at the death of Elvis Presley, whom he considered a gifted talent distorted by capitalism and a rapacious manager.


It’s unlikely that Shevardnadze’s autobiography, should he come to write one, will contain such pleasing moments. The most striking image he leaves behind as foreign minister is of him smirking from behind Baker like a compliant equerry.

It would be unfair to tax Shevardnadze with decisions doubtless made by Gorbachev, or the Gorbachev faction overall, but it was not necessarily a favor to his country or to a more supple foreign policy for him to come across as a yes-man for a NATO take on what the structure of the post-Cold-War world should be.

In the Western press, everything happening in the Soviet Union is reconstructed in cartoon terms as a battle between “radicals” and “conservatives,” but it is worth getting a taste of the debate in the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in the hours after Shevardnadze had thunderstruck the audience by his sudden and somewhat hysterically phrased resignation.

“You, Shevardnadze,” shouted the Byelorussian writer Alexander Adamovitch, “together with (Alexander) Yakovlev and Gorbachev, you started perestroika. You had no idea that these hordes of bastards would throw themselves at you?”

Hardly had Adamovitch sat down before Col. Viktor I. Alksnis, a particular target of Shevardnadze’s wrath, was on his feet: “In front of you there is a reactionary; in front of you there is a bastard. I understand the accusation. Yes, I am a reactionary when I’m concerned about the baby thrown out of a burning building . . . Yes, I am for the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze. I am not against foreign policy. No. We should leave Eastern Europe. But I’m against the way it is conducted.”

Alksnis went on to criticize Shevardnadze’s handling of the gulf crisis, which did indeed leave much to be desired. Baker was able to stampede, cajole and bribe the U.N. Security Council into a resolution universally construed as sanctioning the use of force only because Shevardnadze signaled his support at the critical moment. A responsible position, though one that would have involved him in the apparently abhorrent exercise of saying “no” to a U.S. secretary of state, would have been for Shevardnadze to insist that economic sanctions were not being given adequate time to take effect.

The trouble with Shevardnadze’s public style in the execution of foreign policy was that it devalued the idiom of detente. If every negotiation begins with only token resistance and ends in abject surrender, then very soon the negotiating partner or adversary will take such a posture for granted and be outraged at the slightest display of resistance or backbone.

So the minute Shevardnadze’s successor displays somewhat greater reserve to an American initiative there will be cries in Washington (by no means necessarily of distress) that the nyet is back and the Cold War once more raging. Shevardnadze should have reflected more on the advice of Talleyrand to his subordinates: Pas de zele --Don’t be too enthusiastic. Romping around the post-Cold-War world with Baker, Shevardnadze just looked and behaved like a pushover, the last thing a foreign minister should ever resemble.