WASHINGTON — I'VE BEEN out of touch for a few weeks; anything happen while I was on vacation?
No Rip Van Winkle could be more delighted: Communism is dead. The Soviet empire is breaking up. This is a glorious moment for human freedom.
We should savor that moment, thanking God, NATO, the heroic dissidents in Russia and the internal empire, and the two-generation WilliamSafiresacrifice of the American people to protect themselves and the world from despotic domination.
We should seize the moment, too, to urge our new comrades in freedom to use counter-coup momentum to destroy the institutions and bring down the elite that oppressed them.
Mikhail Gorbachev is still half-measuring: the KGB chief has been arrested and some top brass demoted, while its troops are reassigned to the Defense Ministry and much fuss is made over the tearing down of the statue of Iron Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
But that means the secret police are intact, awaiting the moment for new leaders and a reassignment of assets to seize power. Free people need no secret police; the KGB's entire budget should be seized and used to buy food to help people get through the winter. Unpaid agents and bureaucrats will have an incentive -- hunger -- to go out into the fields and bring in the harvest.
And who needs a huge Red Army? Nobody is threatening Russia the other republics. The soldiers proved their heroism by refusing to fire on the people; the Red Army can serve most honorably by demobilizatsiya on a vast scale, now.
Needed throughout the societies is a good witch hunt, not for communist-style repression so universally tut-tutted but to ferret out the assets of the "new class" of corrupt officials and to force parasitic apparatchiks to do an honest day's work.
The shrinking center should sell the land and shares in the factories to the people (they'll do a land-office business), and turn over the natural resources to the republics, letting the profit motive of free enterprise -- not welfare handouts disguised as loan guarantees -- save the lands that communism failed.
Why isn't the president of the United States on the air welcoming the Russians, Ukrainians and all to the free world, urging the dissolution of the police and cutbacks in the army, showing the path to prosperity?
Part of the answer: He does not want to make another foreign-affairs mistake. This spring President Bush blundered grievously in the giveback of Iraq; this summer, in his dismaying "Chicken Kiev speech," he lectured Ukrainians against self-determination, foolishly placing Washington on the side of Moscow centralism and against the tide of history.
The rest of the answer is that Bush and his advisers have long feared the breakup of the empire that calls itself a union. The scare words are "disunion, dismemberment, disintegration." The fear is not irrational: tight central control of the Soviet nuclear command "football" is in our vital national interest. We are also rightly concerned about the local pogroms and border clashes that disunion may bring.
But the strategic advantage to an end to imperialism is compelling. With the Soviet monolith broken up and a commonwealth established to negotiate arms reductions, the world will be a far safer place.
The moral advantage to disunion is overlooked by diplomats hung up on tidiness. Personal freedom is often aligned with self-determination; diverse cultures that want to assert independence should have America's support, not finger-wagging at ethnic hatreds to conceal our preference for foreign central control.
The argument is moot; disunion is a fact. Democrats from Bill Bradley in Washington to Gary Hart in Moscow are spelling out serious responses, while Bush, in a policy paralysis he calls prudence, is barking "not so fast" from a golf cart.
Two and a half years ago, the first of the "Free the Baltics" columns appeared in this space. Those three small nations were the key to imperial disunion, and the Landsbergis stand against tanks in the Vilnius parliament led to the Yeltsin stand at the Russian parliament last week.
In a day or two, Bush is expected to follow the world in sending envoys to the Baltics. The freed pioneers of the breakup will then help the Soviet Economic Union get on its feet. These are great days.