Soviet changes pose complex foreign policy issues

Carl P. Leubsdorf

August 29, 1991|By Carl P. Leubsdorf | Carl P. Leubsdorf,Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE — AROUND the country, there remain some visible signs of the foreign policy crisis that preoccupied President Bush and his top advisers last August -- the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent U.S.-led war that expelled them.

A large sign welcoming U.S. troops home still graces the airport in nearby Portland.

But down the coast at Walker's Point, the Middle East and the continuing question of possible further military action to force Iraq to comply with United Nations mandates seem forgotten amid the staggering developments in the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, last year's crisis seems like a relatively straightforward and simple matter.

That's presumably one reason they are having such a difficult time in sorting out the future course of U.S. policy. But they are also being hampered by their effort to remain consistent with their prior positions.

In several instances, different members of the president's high command have sent different signals, a far cry from the outward show of unanimity that marked most of the Persian Gulf crisis.

On the day after the anti-Gorbachev coup collapsed, a senior administration official appeared in the press briefing room in Kennebunkport to provide perspective on the Soviet scene and seemed to criticize Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for making Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev his acting defense minister.

"I wouldn't want that guy behind me in a dark hall now," the official said, noting that the general, "to put it generously, was ambivalent" about the coup. But several hours later, Bush pointedly refused to criticize Gorbachev for his handling of the coup's aftermath.

"Who's on first over there is up to them," Bush said. "That's not something that the United States can say any more about."

Aides noted later that the official had been presenting a personal view, and Bush later indicated considerable annoyance about the comment.

Bush has gone out of his way to say nice things about Gorbachev and to indicate that the United States, despite its gratitude for Boris Yeltsin's role in reversing the coup, hoped to keep doing business as before with the Soviet president.

"I wouldn't say that his stature has been weakened by it," Bush said Aug. 22. Asked if the United States could proceed without choosing between the two Soviet leaders, he replied, "We've done it pretty well so far, haven't we."

By Sunday other administration officials were beginning to choose by indicating that not only was Yeltsin gaining primacy but that the United States should encourage it. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he felt the United States would be better off with the Russian Republic president at the helm.

The defense secretary also seemed ready for the United States to recognize the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Secretary of State James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, as well as the president, stuck with the standard U.S. position that the administration wanted the Baltics to be independent but was awaiting a Soviet move on it.

Then, there's the question of expanded U.S. aid for the Soviet hTC Union, which has been a point of controversy for more than a year now.

The president's standard position is that aid remains dependent on the degree to which the Soviets demonstrate their willingness to reform their economy. That's been a safe haven for an administration that has been basically opposed to large-scale aid, in part because it doesn't have the resources to provide it.

But now the pace of reform may speed up substantially. If that happens, Baker said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" on Sunday, Western aid is "likely to come and to come very soon."

Scowcroft, however, took a more pessimistic view, noting the steps that would have to take place before substantial aid could be provided.

The following day, Bush sided with his national security adviser's cautious approach. "The United States is not going to precipitously commit to various things until we know a little more about what's happening," he said.

That makes a lot of sense until the situation in the Soviet Union sorts itself out.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation.

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