MARLIN FITZWATER reached near-highs of understatement and wishful thinking in responding to threats of a Soviet crackdown against deserters and draft-dodgers in seven rebellious republics.
Although administration officials are hoping for a Gorbachevian miracle, everything is much worse than the White House spokesman let on Tuesday.
Soviet-American relations stand on the edge of yet another new era, after only three years of the old one. The coming phase will be marked by drift, mounting mutual unhappiness and no new breakthroughs in negotiation or cooperation. Moscow will be self-absorbed, but not anti-American. This is not what the Bush administration said Tuesday, or should say soon.
Tuesday Fitzwater warned Moscow "to cease attempts at intimidation." True, Moscow has issued similar threats to round up errant recruits before and backed off, but it's not likely this time. The Gorbachev regime has just about run out of internal credibility and cannot afford to fail the armed forces again.
Marlin Fitzwater also said the administration was "still planning" on a Bush-Gorbachev meeting in February. But Bush simply cannot go if the specter of war still hangs over the Persian Gulf.
And with Americans believing that Moscow has used the gulf crisis to blunt the U.S. backlash (much the way the Israeli, British and French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 provided the Soviets with cover to put down the Hungarian uprising), the summit meeting would be politically unwise for some time.
Finally, Fitzwater said he did not believe that his criticisms would undermine Soviet support for the U.S. position in the gulf. That's probably correct, for the time being. But for reasons of Soviet domestic politics, Soviet-American relations are about to go downhill, and we are about to enter the next phase.
The question is what the new "new" Soviet foreign policy is likely to be. And what should be the American response?
We may never know whether Moscow would have threatened the republics again in the absence of the gulf crisis. At the least, the gulf situation made that decision easier. But the point is that a crackdown is inevitable sooner or later.
Mikhail Gorbachev is moving to the right. He has to because he is getting no support from the center and left. To move right means necessarily to emphasize the central tenet of the military, the KGB and the Communist Party faithful -- the Soviet Union must remain a union or a viable federation by force and blood, if need be, and even if the bloodshed severely strains relations with Washington. Unity will take precedence over all other foreign and domestic goals.
Here is what that is likely to mean in practice:
First, there will be a slowdown, if not a standstill, in making decisions on arms control and other cooperative efforts with Washington. It will be harder to get help from Moscow on places like Afghanistan and Cambodia.
The new crowd will want to be seen as tougher than outgoing Foreign Minister Shevardnadze in defending traditional Soviet interests.
Second, Soviet rhetoric will stiffen, but in a new way. The military will press to maintain its budget, but not by generating an "external threat." The Soviet public would not buy this line, and the military does not need to peddle it.
The internal threat is sufficient. There is also likely to be a ratcheting up of anti-Zionist rhetoric. To many Soviet leaders, Moscow's support for the U.S. gulf policy symbolizes the rising influence of the Zionist lobby, a point made repeatedly against Shevardnadze.
Third, the new policy most definitely will not call for a reversion to the old hard line of the old Cold War. Whatever the new crowd thinks about America's challenge to Soviet values, they know their nation is far too weak economically and politically to revive trouble with Washington.
That means they are unlikely to do anything that could jeopardize existing treaties and commitments.
The inward-turning of the Soviet Union will be ugly, whether or not Gorbachev orders a crackdown now. It will hinder and delay important advances toward reducing arms and solving Third World conflicts. It will unnerve those living on and near Soviet borders.
But the coming era in Soviet foreign policy should be cause for dismay, not for a re-evaluation of U.S. policy. Marlin Fitzwater was right to skip the self-righteous hysteria, sound hopeful and stand up for American democratic values. That stance can be awkward politically, but it is correct.