WASHINGTON -- Politicians like to talk about what they call "defining moments" -- meaning occasions in which their performance shapes public perceptions of their abilities. For President Bush, the crisis in the Soviet Union is just such a moment.
The president has reached giddy heights of popular approval in the public opinion polls on the strength of his handling of foreign policy questions during his first 30 months in the White House. But the situation he confronts today is both complex and threatening enough to dwarf anything he has encountered so far.
As such, it will reveal far more about Bush's skills than ever was revealed even by his aggressive display of strength in the Persian Gulf or, on the other side of the ledger, his willingness to kowtow to the Chinese after Tiananmen Square and his original inability to grasp the dimensions of the changes in Eastern Europe two summers ago.
Bush's policy toward the Soviet Union, one shared by other western leaders, had been based on two premises. The first was that Mikhail Gorbachev would remain in power; the second was that the Soviet leader did not need substantial outside help in doing so beyond the tokenism approved by the economic summit two months ago. Both have been proven mistaken.
Now the president faces an entirely different situation -- and one in which the fear quotient is high enough to subject him to the closest scrutiny. On the one hand, Bush must find a formula for dealing with the reality of the new hard-line leadership in Moscow. On the other, he must do so without abandoning U.S. commitments to movements toward freedom and democracy inside the Soviet Union, in the Baltic states and in Eastern Europe.
The most immediate question is whether Gennady Yanayev and his
See POLICY, A6, Col. 1 POLICY, From 00 allies will indeed honor the arms limitation agreements reached with Gorbachev, including the commitment to allow on-site inspection within both the United States and Soviet Union that goes far beyond anything approved in the past. The Soviets may say they will fulfill all existing treaties but their history in the days before Gorbachev came to power is not reassuring.
The more significant question for the longer term, however, is how the president will balance the need to establish a relationship with the new leadership against the aspirations of the Soviet people for more freedom. The crux of this issue is the treatment of Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic and, most importantly, one who has been popularly elected in a process the Bush administration and the free world in general lauded at the time.
In political terms, there is also a touchy issue for Bush in the future of the Baltic states that have a large resident lobby of ethnic Americans for whom their freedom is the first priority. The actions by the leaders of the coup in sending troops to key installations in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia obviously heighten fears of a showdown over their future.
Bush's initial reaction seemed aimed at striking a balance between concern and any appearance of panic. The president's decision to return to Washington was a political signal that he has recognized the dimensions of the crisis and is treating it with the utmost seriousness.
The president has not always been sensitive to such appearances. In dealing with China, most notably, he always has insisted he has some special insight -- dating from his days as the first envoy to Beijing -- that justified his decision to secretly send emissaries to China within a month after the Tiananmen Square uprising was put down and while the free world reaction against the Chinese leaders was still hot outrage.
Bush also seemed remarkably slow to respond to the transformation of Eastern Europe in the summer of 1989. But any Bush inadequacies in foreign policy were blotted out by his decision to confront Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait a year ago. The success in carrying out the military triumph in the Persian Gulf with such speed and with so few casualties seemed to remove any doubts about Bush's ability to deal with international crises.
The crisis in the Soviet Union will require a far more sophisticated response than before. And the stakes are far higher than the supply of oil from the Middle East.