Capitol Hill partisans fire rounds of rhetoric to capitalize on Soviet coup's failure THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 22, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON KDB — WASHINGTON -- The star-crossed Moscow putsch was hardly over, and the blame game began on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday's history-making events offered Republicans a fresh opportunity to bask in President Bush's international primacy.

"I think those who perpetrated this coup underestimated the ability of President Bush to solidify world opinion against an illegal government," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, echoing the hyperbolic sentiments expressed by fellow Republicans.

Democrats, forced to watch Mr. Bush's political status soar on the breeze of another foreign policy crisis, argued that he was something less than a latter-day Churchill and suggested that he was too enamored of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, too willing to jettison principle for expediency, or that he should have seen the coup coming.

"The administration was slow to recognize the legitimacy of Boris Yeltsin in the first place," said Representative David McCurdy, D-Okla., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who went on to hint that his committee might launch an investigation into "how the administration could have been stunned that this happened."

Democrats generally sought to tread lightly on Mr. Bush, still coasting on his Desert Storm popularity. That, however, led to some awkward circumlocutions.

"In January, when there were 15 to 18 people murdered in the Baltics, President Bush should have spoken out. When he was in Moscow to sign the trade agreement, on the exact day . . . there were seven people murdered in cold blood in the Baltics. He should have spoken out," New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley said.

Mr. Bradley said he didn't mean that comments from the president "would have headed off these developments, but they would have clearly stated where the U.S. stands. Once [the Soviets] know where to draw the line, they then have a basis upon which to proceed in which they know what

they will lose if they take that action."

There may be little evidence for Mr. Gramm's assertion that administration policy expedited the failure of the coup. And other observers have wondered why Mr. Bush should have been able to predict the coup when it evidently caught even Mr. Gorbachev by surprise. Similarly, few experts appeared to agree with Mr. Bradley's contention that a harder line by Mr. Bush earlier this year might have headed off the coup.

Reality, however, has not restrained lawmakers from using the coup to advance pet political -- or geopolitical -- causes.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., hailed the demise of the coup -- and hastened to add that he hoped U.S. agriculture exports would not be held hostage to the vagaries of U.S.-Soviet relations.

House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who has tangled with the administration with his calls for direct economic aid to the Soviet Union, called on the West to "move aggressively" to see that "democratic and free-market reforms . . . endure."

Other appeals were not as subtle. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, for example, called the Soviet crisis a "wake-up call" to those ready to chop the defense budget and cash in on a "peace dividend."

"Let's hope the upheaval in the Soviet Union puts a few more cracks in the rose-colored glasses liberals wear when they look at Moscow," he said. "If there is one lesson to be learned from the coup attempt, it is that America can never afford to drop its guard, no matter how things look on any given day."

That assertion was countered by Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who has been fighting attempts by Republicans and conservative Democrats to include funds for the costly B-2 stealth bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative in the annual defense bill. "Events in the Soviet Union are likely to have a bigger impact on the State Department than on the Pentagon," he said.

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