August 28, 1991

They say I have come back to a different country. I agree. [I now look] upon everything with different eyes.

So spake Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev once he had regained his composure, once he had seen how the failed hard-line putsch had transformed his country, once he had faced up to the collapse of the Communist Party and the cascade of power from his central government to the various republics.

President Bush says he recognizes that this second Russian Revolution "is clearly the death knell for the communist movement around the world." We have no doubt that he understands intellectually and intuitively that the Soviet Union is indeed "a different country" than it was ten days ago. But we are concerned that his stubborn insistence on going slow and being ultra-cautious in reacting to these momentous events may create a perception, perhaps a false perception, that he resists looking upon the Soviet Union with "different eyes."

Mr. Gorbachev's blames himself for his "lack of decisiveness and consistency" during the days when his own conservative colleagues were plotting his downfall. He was instinctively a man of the status quo, and as such had only recently drawn lavish praise from the American president who is also instinctively a man of the status quo.

During his extraordinary Aug. 1 visit to Ukraine, Mr. Bush praised Mr. Gorbachev for achieving "astonishing things" in pursuit " of freedom, democracy and economic liberty." Though insisting he was not meddling in internal affairs, Mr. Bush ignored the threat from the right and instead blasted the threat from the left -- "those who seek to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. . . those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred."

Mr. Bush may have been on the mark in perceiving the second danger of nationalism gone rampant -- note Russian designs on Kazakhstan's territory -- even if he ignored the first and more immediate danger of a coup from the right. When it came, most European countries reacted by urging immediate Western assistance for the Soviet Union and quick recognition of Baltic independence; Mr. Bush has balked on both counts. There is to be no "check-writing" until the Soviets put real economic reform in place -- a tall order even though radical reformers have taken over top posts. There will be no recognition of the Baltic states until Moscow itself gives the word -- probably tomorrow.

Mr. Bush obviously is sympathetic to the need for some kind of central authority to prevent total chaos. So, we suspect, are Mr. Gorbachev and his powerful rival, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. But Mr. Bush must make sure not only that he is in the forefront of events -- but that he is seen to be. He should not want to be an American version of Mr. Gorbachev, who has said his own good intentions were not fulfilled because he failed to see that the mechanisms of power had to change.

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