Journal of Cold War Studies 1.3 (1999) 182-184
Ideas, Politics, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Sarah E. Mendelson, Changing Course: Ideas, Politics, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. xiii + 140 pp.
In the library of Western writing on the Cold War, the Third World fills more shelves than any other subject. In recent studies of the end of the Cold War, however, the Third World figures far less prominently than topics such as arms control and Europe. The most notable exception is Afghanistan. Detailed narrative accounts and a growing stock of memoir and archival material have enriched our understanding of the Soviet Union's involvement in Afghanistan.
Changing Course is the first academic monograph to treat Afghanistan as a case study in the making of Soviet foreign policy. Sarah Mendelson provides a very useful and succinct account of policy making vis-a÷-vis Afghanistan in three different settings: the years under Leonid Brezhnev, the interregnum under Yurii Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. In her view, we cannot account for policy developments by referring either to pressure from Washington or to "new ideas" or learning in Moscow. She argues, very sensibly, for a "multicausal" explanation, an approach that "marries ideas and politics" (p. 37). Much of her critical [End Page 182] assessment of the inadequacies of realist and neorealist explanations of changes in Soviet foreign policy is persuasive.
Most serious students of Soviet policy on Afghanistan agree that pressure from the United States was not the only (or even most important) factor in Moscow's decision to withdraw. They would concur with Mendelson that the domestic political climate and the battles over foreign policy making were very important factors. That means we have to examine the way these factors mediated U. S. and other external influences rather than simply treating the international dimension as marginal. Even if the Stingers arrived after the Soviet Union had largely decided to pull out of Afghanistan, wider issues of relations with Washington continued to affect Soviet policy on Afghanistan, and they deserve more attention than they receive in this study.
Mendelson lays great stress on how political change in Moscow opened up access for new policy ideas. The advent of a new political generation in 1985-1986 clearly made a crucial difference. The importance of generational change is obvious in the discussion between Gorbachev and Gromyko about Afghanistan during a Soviet Politburo meeting in late 1986. Still, there is no evidence that Gromyko or other conservative-minded members of the leadership flatly opposed the idea of an early withdrawal of troops. The conservative case lacked credibility, and the authority of the Communist Party's general secretary was too great to be challenged directly on this issue.
Mendelson, by contrast, believes that political constraints on the general secretary were important, and that Gorbachev had to consolidate his power before he could decide to withdraw, a decision that she dates to late 1986 or early 1987. In her view, the balance of domestic political power and political bargaining in Moscow are keys to explaining how policy toward Afghanistan developed. Domestic political circumstances certainly played a large part in Gorbachev's policy thinking in 1985-1987, but so did the assessments that he and his advisers were making of developments in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. Such assessments, together with the priorities they reflected and shaped, may have been at least as important as domestic political conditions in bringing about the withdrawal. Differences of perspective and opinion rather than political alignment were surely central to the disagreements about aid to Afghan leader Najibullah in early 1989. At this time, Shevardnadze sharply disagreed with Gorbachev. It would have been worth Mendelson's while to examine the various factors at play here. By delving more deeply into these and other policy discussions, she would have followed through more satisfactorily on her interesting research agenda.
Problems of follow-through also affect Mendelson's treatment of the role of ideas. Her general approach...