WASHINGTON B — WASHINGTON -- President Bush telephoned a pledge of U.S. support to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday and then promptly returned to his vacation home in Maine, anxious but not able to reverse events in the Soviet Union.
"I don't want to send a signal by sitting around the Oval Office here looking busy that the American people should expect an instant satisfactory answer to this problem," Mr. Bush said at a news conference before leaving Washington.
The president said he had tried unsuccessfully to telephone ousted Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Reflecting some of the frustration he seems to feel, Mr. Bush praised Mr. Yeltsin as a man standing "courageously against military force," but he acknowledged that he had little more to offer than prayer and hope.
"I told [Mr. Yeltsin] that we respect you. You've been duly elected.We pray for you, and we hope that you're successful," Mr. Bush said.
At Kennebunkport, Mr. Bush said he would stay "right on top of this situation," but he acknowledged the limitations on his options by:
* Ruling out any military initiative. "I'm not trying to elevate any chance of military confrontation. . . . I think we want to cool that," he said.
* Expressing reservations about calling an allied summit, which he said was unlikely to be "productive."
* Saying that people were looking to the United States "disproportionately" for leadership.
Mr. Bush emphasized that he did not want to turn the crisis into a broad East-West confrontation.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III pressed that position yesterday, saying, "We don't see it inherently as a matter of East-West confrontation, and we don't seek to suggest in any way the existence of a threat to the Soviet Union or the Soviet people, and we don't want anybody using that argument as a pretext to continue or to take actions that might be illegitimate."
Mr. Bush did swear in his new ambassador to the Soviet Union, Robert Strauss, yesterday. But the 72-year-old international deal-maker, who is being dispatched to Moscow immediately, won't be presenting his credentials because that would imply recognition of the new Soviet government. He won't be staying in Moscow long, either.
Mr. Strauss said his mission will be "to speak for the principles of freedom and democracy and rule of law," and to report back to the president ina few days on what he sees in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Strauss, a friend of the president's and a former U.S. special trade representative, has no particular experience in Soviet affairs. His nomination was initially meant to symbolize improving U.S.-Soviet commercial ties. But he noted yesterday, "It's a different world."
After being sworn in at the White House, Mr. Strauss said, "My mission remains basically the same, and that is to go to Moscow, speak very clearly, speak very plainly and, if necessary, with undiplomatic candor from time to time."
Mr. Bush did not rule out a meeting between Mr. Strauss and the coup leaders but said, "What we don't want to do is do anything that legitimizes this current regime or legitimizes what is clearly an illegal coup."
There was widespread speculation about Mr. Strauss' departure for Moscow in the unusual circumstances surrounding it. An administration official said Mr. Strauss' presence would send a message to the coup leaders: "Watch what you do or what you say, because the president will find out straight away."
Patrick Glynn, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "Strauss is like a pawn, a piece you can play later in the game.
"The point may come when he can do something dramatic that will clinch the crisis in the right direction. My sense is he is a man with a good sense of political timing and opportunity. Some of that translates over cultures and across borders. This might work out pretty well.
"There is no possibility of intervention in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union in a military way, but it seems to me that it would be easy to underestimate the simple symbolic import of worldwide non-recognition of the new leadership. The countervailing pressure created by the moral stance the U.S. is taking, along with every other world power, can't be ignored by this new leadership."
Mr. Bush, during a Rose Garden news conference, made it clear "to the coup plotters and the coup people that there will not be normal relations with the United States as long as this illegal coup remains in effect."
But other politicians suggested the United States might have little option in the long run. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said, "In the end, if they take over, we will have to deal with them, and we will."