WASHINGTON -- The postponement of the Moscow summit meeting is the most serious manifestation to date of an obvious fact: War unleashes unintended consequences, many of them most undesirable.
When President Bush launched the massive air assault against Iraq, he was letting loose more than American and allied air power. In attempting to control one situation -- the conduct of Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf region -- he was inviting developments that now and through the course of the war will dictate to him.
On the operational level, for example, he currently finds his forces having to fight an oil slick in the gulf while they continue to pound directly at Iraq. And, in the diplomatic realm, he has been obliged to mark time in what had been the most hopeful development on the world stage -- the transition of U.S.-Soviet relations from Cold War enmity to peacetime partnership.
Until Bush declared Saddam Hussein another Hitler and his threat the most important development since World War II, the United States' top foreign policy priority was clear -- to encourage and pursue that U.S.-Soviet partnership and the rapid dTC development of democratic forces in Eastern Europe that were the most hopeful parallel phenomenon. Together they had produced optimistic talk of a "peace dividend" that after all the Cold War years of massive military spending would finance long-neglected social and physical needs at home.
That partnership, to be sure, is imperiled today by events much more serious than the postponement of a summit meeting. Moscow's strong-arm efforts to frustrate the independence of the Baltic states, and Mikhail Gorbachev's apparent yielding to repressively reactionary institutions like the Soviet army and KGB, have taken the bloom off the rose of U.S.-Soviet comity. But it is not beyond imagination that the crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia were timed when they were because the United States then had its hands full in the gulf.
The gulf war, more than simply causing a summit postponement, has inhibited the Bush administration from challenging much more forcefully Gorbachev's conspicuous detour from the path toward democratization on which he had been treading. To put it bluntly, the war has given Bush an alibi for not coping directly with a greater threat to his touted "New World Order" than Saddam Hussein -- Soviet conduct that could resurrect the Cold War.
Bush obviously hopes that Gorbachev can somehow survive his current crisis without a total military crackdown on the Baltic States that will require strong American protest and a consequent chilling of U.S.-Soviet relations again. Such a chill could bring about the worst unintended consequence of all -- a rupture ending in a Soviet withdrawal from the anti-Saddam coalition. Only the presumed end of the Cold War made it possible for Bush to entertain his Wilsonian dreams of a "New World Order" in the first place.
When the president tried to threaten Saddam Hussein into withdrawing from Kuwait before the shooting started, he made much of his belief that the Iraqi dictator simply didn't know what he was getting himself into if he refused. Bush repeatedly insisted that reality was not getting through to Saddam, and that was why Secretary of State James Baker would be dispatched to Baghdad to tell him man-to-man what was in store militarily if he didn't pull out of Kuwait.
But, it is just as true that President Bush did not know what was in store for himself, this country and the world community if war started -- and not just the Scud missiles raining down indiscriminately on Israel and Saudi Arabia, or the oil slick producing what ecological experts say is the worst environmental disaster of its kind in history.
Instability in the Middle East was a predictable consequence of a war there involving the United States and its veneer of international support. The region had choked on the bone of Israeli-Palestinian stalemate long before the shooting started, and will continue to do so until that impasse is broken.
But renewed instability in U.S.-Soviet relationships could be a more serious unintended consequence if Gorbachev becomes more repressive under the shield of Bush's preoccupation with the gulf war. So could instability here at home if the war turns out to be not short and conclusive, but drawn-out and muddled and what Bush has explicitly promised it won't be -- "another Vietnam."
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.