The Helsinki Summit

September 10, 1990

At the Helsinki summit, the Soviet Union got an American go-ahead to use its considerable leverage in Iraq to force Saddam Hussein to abandon his occupation of Kuwait. The goal is an international order in which aggression by larger states against smaller neighbors will not be tolerated. U.S. acceptance of policy differences between the two superpowers could be read as an effort to increase Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's pressures on his former allies in Baghdad.

* Example: President Bush dismissed the presence of Soviet military advisers in Iraq as a mere "irritant." Perhaps they and several thousand other Soviets in Iraq have influence with important elements in the Iraqi armed forces.

* Example: Mr. Bush all but abandoned past U.S. efforts to freeze the Soviet Union out of Middle East diplomacy, including eventual international conferences on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The U.S. now seems to accept a Soviet role in the region as essential if an international security organization in the Persian Gulf is to be successful.

* Example: Mr. Bush said the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is not permanent, contrary to much speculation emanating from administration sources. This may mollify Soviet generals upset at the appearance of an American expeditionary force on their southern doorstep and does not rule out U.S. or Soviet military contingents if a United Nations command is established.

The Helsinki emphasis on the Soviet role in seeking a political solution to the Iraqi crisis is a logical follow-up to the American initiative in executing a military mobilization in Saudi Arabia that Moscow has condoned. Neither side, despite differences in nuance, has precluded any option, including military force. Their communique said that "if the current steps fail ... we are prepared to consider additional ones."

Mr. Bush's deference toward Mr. Gorbachev's policy imperatives also undercut Mr. Hussein's attempts to taunt Moscow as diminishing superpower. It was the Soviet president who pointedly advised Mr. Hussein to proceed with "sobriety" lest he lead his country to a "dead end." It was Mr. Gorbachev who warned Iraqi leaders that if they "provoked" aggression it would lead to "tragedy" for their people. The Soviet president said "we don't exclude the possibility of establishing new contacts [in Iraq], of having new meetings at various levels... Those links can be used positively."

The Helsinki summit will be remembered as the first in which the superpowers could focus on present and future unity rather than past differences and problems of the Cold War era. It should, as well, put an end to an American tendency to over-celebrate its dominant role in world affairs. The Soviet Union, despite its troubles, remains a mighty player whose friendship will be a lot more useful than its enmity.

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