That Americans have difficulty thinking straight about the Soviet Union is an old complaint. Both the doves and the hawks agree that serious misperceptions regarding the nature of Soviet society and policy hamper the United State's ability to deal effectively with another superpower. Opinions differ dramatically, however, about both the origins and the character of these misperceptions.
For many in the conservative camp, the source of the problem is the American media and specifically its cynical manipulation by Soviet secret services. The code word here is disinformation. And there is no doubt that disinformation remains an important tool of Soviet foreign policy, Mikhail S. Gorbachev's glasnost notwithstanding. During just the last several months, Soviet newspapers have accused the United States of being behind the assassinations of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme and Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, as well as of intentionally introducing the AIDS virus in Africa.
Soviet spokesmen have become regular guests on major network shows. They speak excellent American English, are well dressed and appear friendly and relaxed. To the amazement of the U.S. audience, these Soviet representatives are not afraid to admit that many things have gone terribly wrong in the Soviet Union. But their bottom line is always the same: Gorbachev is on the right track; he faces tremendous obstacles, and it is inherently in the American interest to offer him a helping hand.
It is difficult to avoid a feeling that we are being snookered. Some go further than that, arguing that U.S. journalists and politicians, overeager to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt, are doing the KGB's work. And there are a few who are appalled when Americans, for whatever reason, take positions on key international issues which objectively may be in Moscow's interest.
"My Dear Alex. Letters From a KGB Agent" by Dinesh D'Souza and Gregory Fossedal is introduced as "a work of satire, not fact." Yet the authors use real names of real people. They quote from their real books and articles. And the charge is no less than that the statements in question--if not the individuals who made them--"support the goals of our enemies, willingly or not."
Some may find fictional letters from a KGB agent named Vladimir, who strikingly resembles Soviet TV personality and frequent guest on American TV shows Vladimir Posner, funny. The way he advises his young KGB protege to establish himself in the United States not by engaging in simple-minded propaganda but rather by borrowing arguments used in U.S. political debates seems to reflect new Soviet public relations techniques. Indeed, more and more often--whether complaining about the Strategic Defense Initiative or about the plight of the homeless--Soviet commentators rely on critical comments made by Americans themselves.
But does exploitation by the adversary make such criticism less legitimate? To D'Souza and Fossedal, respectively from the Heritage Foundation and from the Hoover Institute, both conservative think tanks, the answer is self-evident: Americans should not do anything that may give comfort to the Soviets. Well, this is the Soviet attitude in reverse. And it led the Soviet society only to stagnation and corruption. Looking at their experience, I would settle for the American propensity for masochistic self-expose any time.
Robert English and Jonathan J. Halperin, from the left-of-center Committee on National Security, in their new book, "The Other Side: How Soviets and Americans Perceive Each Other" (Transaction Books), also focus on American misconceptions of the Soviet Union. They make a commendable effort to provide a balanced and insightful picture. The book, designed to serve as an educational tool for the general public, avoids simplistic stereotypes. And it proceeds on the assumption that the United States and the Soviet Union have different political traditions, value systems and, in many cases, different interests.
Still, "The Other Side" sends precisely the kind of message that makes D'Souza and Fossedal so mad. And the message is that both sides share responsibility for the superpower conflict. Americans, for instance, did not sufficiently appreciate how offended the Kremlin would be by the Jackson-Vanik amendment linking trade benefits for Moscow with Soviet relaxation of emigration controls. The Soviets, on the other hand, "appeared genuinely surprised at the U.S. reaction to their invasion of Afghanistan." Neoconservatives would probably accuse English and Halperin of the "moral equivalents" offense. I would simply note that there is a profound difference between even the most clumsy American efforts to pressure the Kremlin on human rights and the invasion of a sovereign country.