THE WESTERN view of Mikhail Gorbachev has veered from one extreme to another. The Soviet leader was seen as the disciple of Yuri Andropov, committed only to discipline, and then as a veritable Andrei Sakharov, devoted only to democracy. Now we may be turning him into a totalitarian dictator.

We have been just as inconsistent in our analysis of the source of threats to Gorbachev. Last September, many thought that Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Republic could impose the 500-day economic reform at will over Gorbachev's objections. Now Gorbachev is supposedly the prisoner of the army and the KGB -- institutions that had been treated as irrelevant in September as the country disintegrated.

We have seen him, in short, riding a tiger for six years, always to be eaten within a year or so. The more powers he has accumulated, the weaker we have seen him.

In fact, Gorbachev's power has never been seriously challenged, and his evolution and approach to governance has been far more consistent than many suppose.

From the beginning Gorbachev has been neither a Western democrat nor a Leonid Brezhnev, but has fit into a different category: the kind of modernizing, westernizing czar often seen in the Third World -- as was Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister of Singapore. Such rulers normally have final authority, and sometimes they exercise it ruthlessly. Yet, they usually have legislatures with limited power, encourage private ownership and foreign investment, are receptive to Western culture and give their educated population considerable freedom to travel and to read.

If we understand Gorbachev in these terms, we no longer see him following a zigzag course between the democracy and dictatorship. Rather, we see him combining both in a complicated manner. Certainly Gorbachev has always been jealous of his personal power, and he has continually showed the "teeth of iron" that Andrei Gromyko attributed to him in 1985. If his words are read carefully, one can see that he has never given anyone reason to believe that he would permit the republics to leave the Soviet Union.

His position on Lithuania, for example, has been quite consistent. As The Washington Post's David Remnick reported in January 1990, Gorbachev was promising "real federalism" while issuing warnings to crowds of Lithuanians in Vilnius. "Today I am your friend," he said then. "But if you choose to go another way, then I will do everything I can to show you are leading people into a dead end." His liberal adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, was warning then of an unacceptable "domino effect" if the Baltics seceded.

Although Gorbachev had held out vague hope of a constitutional secession a year ago, he was coming very close to repudiating this idea by November: "Disintegration and separation," he said, "cannot happen in our country, simply under any circumstances." And he made this rather menacing statement: "Whether we like it or not, our fate is already sealed. If we start splitting, there will be . . . a dreadful war." At the same time, he was more fervent than ever in support of real federalism, saying, "We champion profound changes in our Union, first and foremost by way of a redistribution of powers."

In effect, Gorbachev has been using a combination of carrot and stick in the republics to try to separate the moderates and radicals. Try for independence and revolution, he is saying implicitly, and you risk being bashed. Work within the system, he is saying explicitly, and you will have great individual freedom and your republic will have autonomy.

This does not mean that Gorbachev has turned into a reactionary. He clearly was worried that a Central Committee filled with governmental and party officials might someday unite to overthrow him as it did Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. Gorbachev deliberately took advantage of -- I would say, promoted -- chaos and disorder to strip the Central Committee and Politburo of their power over him and to create a presidency with emergency power whose occupant could not be legally removed until 1995.

While Gorbachev now has every reason to use his new powers to end the chaos, he has always been consistent in pushing for an opening to the West, limited introduction of market relations and greater press freedom than existed under his predecessors. One may think that Gorbachev's economic program is going too slow, but it is certainly moving forward in accelerated fashion from the realities of 1990, not the hopes. One may think the program won't work, but that doesn't mean he has been inconsistent.

Still, hasn't the Soviet president sacrificed all his liberal support and come to rely on the army and reactionaries to a fatal degree? In fact, the answer is an unequivocal "no."

He is cracking down not because of right-wing pressure, but to regain public popularity. It was his apparent connection with the radicals and the public perception that he was weak that drove his poll ratings down. Gorbachev is showing the "teeth of iron" that the public wants, he is wrapping himself in the flag of national unity and he is jettisoning his liberal advisers as scapegoats for the disorder of 1990.

What some in the West are not understanding is that the radical reformers are doing no better in the polls than Gorbachev. In fact, a crucial by-election was held Nov. 25 for a vacancy for the Russian parliament in Moscow, the center of radical support. But only 30 percent of the electorate turned out, and only 30 percent of these voters supported A.N. Murashev, a leader of the Yeltsin group. If a revolutionary upsurge were occurring -- as it was in the summer and fall of 1917 -- the result would have been very different.

Gorbachev has an overwhelming majority in the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, as well as a working majority in the Russian parliament. His vast presidential powers put the entire "administrative-command system" -- the vaunted bureaucracy -- at his disposal. Some lack of power! The only question is whether Gorbachev will survive -- in other words, whether there will be revolution or coup d'etat in the next few years.

Yet now that the Central Committee cannot remove Gorbachev, there are only two groups that can do so. One is the military; the other are the Russians between the ages of 15 and 22. Mass revolution is a young man's game, for only they will throw rocks at troops, join guerrilla movements or face tanks in sufficient numbers.

The military have every reason to support Gorbachev. They fear the breakup of the Soviet Union and are more frightened of Islamic fundamentalism than the tiny Baltic republics. In the long run, they fear China. In response to the argument that Gorbachev has given away Eastern Europe, it can be said that he has also broken up NATO as a significant military force and brought the United States into alliance against the short-term and long-term dangers from the south.

In addition, the Pentagon solidified Soviet military support for economic reform by showing visiting Soviet generals our top military technology. Their purpose was to persuade the Soviet military that they could not defeat the United States, but a side effect was to convince the military that drastic improvement of civilian high-technology industries such as computers and electronics is vital for defense.

As to the young potential revolutionaries, what is their actual mood? Ask Russian friends if their college students are ready to face tanks and they look at you as if you're crazy. The students, they will tell you, are politically passive and getting ready to make money in the new cooperatives.

This is the crucial point for Americans to understand. Soviet citizens over 50 have every reason to be terrified that the inflation associated with economic reform will wipe out their unindexed pensions. By contrast, the youth -- at least the ambitious and talented youth who are capable of organizing opposition -- will benefit enormously from economic reform. They will get -- they are getting -- a real chance at real privilege.

But while the middle-aged are dangerous in elections, only the young are dangerous in the streets. For this reason, economic reform is not a cause of revolution, but the antidote against it. The only way that Gorbachev could provoke a revolt would be to throttle economic reform and frustrate the only "dangerous" group in society. There no evidence that he is so stupid.

By all indications, Gorbachev's strategy now is to satisfy the Russians, including the military, by keeping the Union together -- but ultimately to tell the Russians that decentralization is necessary for social peace. He will push ahead with economic reform, and he will continue to keep his electoral opponents pushing for greater market freedom so he can command the center.

Legislative elections are scheduled for 1994 and presidential elections for 1995. Gorbachev wants to be able to say in 1994 and 1995, "Remember how bad 1990 was? You gave me great powers. Are you better off than you were four years ago?" He wants the memories of 1990 to be as exaggerated as possible, and he wants his electoral opponents to be identified with extreme measures -- especially the breakup of the U.S.S.R. My own belief is that Gorbachev's position will be very strong in the mid-1990s; the agricultural and services reform that worked in China and Hungary should work in the Soviet Union. Industrial reform will be much more difficult, but that is not Gorbachev's immediate worry.

Of course, if Gorbachev cannot show results before 1995, all bets are off. But a good deal can happen before then. George Bush, after all, will be "overthrown" either in 1992 or 1996, and he has to worry about the Soviet Union of 1991-1995.

What should America do? First, we should tell our democratic friends in Russia to stop whining about Gorbachev being a tragic, transitional figure. Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders, Lincoln was ambivalent on the abolition of slavery and Franklin D. Roosevelt took only the first steps towards establishing a massive social safety net. Great figures in history are ambiguous; they initiate great changes rather than finish them off. A democratic politician cannot simultaneously play at revolution and command the electoral center, as the Soviet radicals are attempting.

Second, we must not equate democracy with the avoidance of force to preserve the Union. Lincoln used force. The democratic leaders in India used force to control Kashmir. If the democrats stand for the dissolution of the Union, they will be defeated. If we force America's friends, such as Eduard Shevardnadze, to say that good relations with the West are dependent on the dissolution of the Union, men like Shevardnadze and good relations will be destroyed.

We say with a sneer that the Soviet Union is a Third World country. Let us then treat the Soviet Union like a normal Third World country. We have good economic relations with authoritarian Singapore, South Korea, Mexico and Taiwan.

We know that Third World democratization is a tortuous process, but we can afford to be patient with Third World countries whose foreign policy is benign. Gorbachev is even more important. He heads a superpower and therefore can do great harm with his troop policy in Germany, with his concessions to Japan, with his policy on emigration -- and with his postwar policy in the Middle East.

Now that the word "postwar" is taking on a wholly new meaning, Americans need to see the Soviet president -- and their own interests -- with clear eyes. Otherwise, this nation may make some dreadful mistakes.