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11:00 PM, Mar 31, 1996 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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In his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton crowed that "for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at American children." As if the fiends in the Kremlin targeted their ICBMs at the under-18 set next, well hear that " they aimed their gravity bombs at our elderly, infirm, and pregnant.

With this histrionic rhetoric, Clinton apparently sought to claim some credit for ending the Cold War. In the 1992 campaign, President Bush had claimed such credit because he had presided over the Cold War's denouement. In reality, Bush's role was like that of a back-up quarterback sent in to run out the clock when the game is already securely in hand. But if Bush's claim was an exaggeration, Clinton's was absurd. He was not yet even on the team when that Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His newest book, The imperative other American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism, will be published by the AEI Press in April. victory was recorded.

In truth, only two American residents can claim major credit for winning the Cold War. The first was Harry Truman, who articulated the "Truman doctrine" that launched the policy of containment and presided over the Marshall Plan and the founding of NATO. The second was Ronald Reagan, who ascended to office when America's self-confidence was at its nadir and the " correlation of forces" was more favorable to our Soviet adversary than at any other time. two when he left office eight years later, America was ascendant and the Soviet empire -- indeed, the Soviet Union itself -- was tottering on the precipice over which it soon tumbled.

Did Reagan win the Cold War? Were his policies responsible? Many of his domestic opponents denied it. At the extreme were doves such as the former SALT negotiator Raymond Garthoff and now-deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott who argued, each in his own way, that the Soviets had wanted peace all along but that it had taken America a very long time to figure this out. As Garthoff put it (and the illustrious George Kennan said much the same), Reagan had delayed, not hastened, the Cold War's finish by his belligerent refusal to recognize or reciprocate Soviet peace overtures. This argument, however, never could explain why Soviet peace-lovingness had not found its fulfillment before the hawkish Reagan became president -- say, when America was led by the pacific Jimmy Carter, who embraced Leonid Brezhnev and kissed him, as it were, on all cheeks.

Curiously, the Garthoff-Talbott-Kennan argument also downplays the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, since each of them contends that even under Brezhnev, peace-seeking Soviet diplomacy was thwarted by American militancy. These writers make strange bedfellows with some on the right who argued throughout the Gorbachev era and since that the last Soviet leader never intended fundamental change in the Soviet system but only presided over a break-up driven entirely by impersonal economic forces. This argument, however, never explained why an economic downturn should have impelled Soviet rulers to undertake risky reforms. Their own standard of living was insulated; their hold on power was unthreatened; and their ponderous military machine retained its unsurpassed lethality (far larger than the American even if a step behind technologically).

A more moderate, and more common, liberal account of the Cold War's end accords credit to Gorbachev (Timds "Man of the Decade") but little to Reagan, as if he merely had the dumb luck to be in the right place at the right time to receive the Soviet surrender -- much as Forrest Gump might have been. This version is better than some of the others, but still unconvincing. The credit it accords Gorbachev is indeed due him. He surely did not intend the break-up of the Soviet Union and presumably would have followed a different course had he foreseen it. Still, he styled himself a "revolutionary" and steered a course of radical reform -- liberalizing at home and jettisoning empire abroad -- that was charted primarily by his own inner compass. Nonetheless, to give all credit to Gorbachev and little to Reagan leaves at least two big questions unanswered.

The first is, Where did Gorbachev come from? His elevation in 1985 to the post of general secretary was far from automatic. Although the Politburo would not have selected him had its members foreseen the lengths to which he would go, he was seen as the candidate most likely to bring change. The oft- quoted declaration by Andrei Gromyko, who nominated Gorbachev, that despite the latter's nice smile he possessed "iron teeth" seems clearly to have been intended to assuage worries about Gorbachev's liberalism.