Bush, Belatedly, for Soviet Aid

April 02, 1992

Goaded by an unlikely twosome, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, President Bush has finally put the prestige of his office behind a $24 billion international aid package for the states of the old Soviet empire. With support from such big-gun Democratic senators as George Mitchell and Sam Nunn, Congress must now get up the gumption to enact a massive foreign aid initiative in the midst of an election-year recession.

The coalition forming behind this effort is reminiscent of the consensus that pushed through the Marshall Plan in 1948, another economically troubled election year. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, in back-to-back speeches yesterday, emphasized how big the stakes are in insuring the survival of fledgling democracy in the former Soviet republics.

Both candidates seemed to enjoy a few moments away from campaign-trail bickering to speak out as statesmen. Mr. Bush, always the transparent tactician, scheduled his speech just minutes ahead of a planned Clinton address to prevent the Arkansas governor from stealing a march by listing specific elements of the aid package. Mr. Clinton, in turn, tempered his persuasive endorsement of the White House initiative by scoring the president for keeping the U.S. "largely on the sidelines" instead of providing leadership on this issue. Complaining of "reactive, rudderless and erratic diplomacy," the Democratic frontrunner sardonically said he wished he had as much influence in domestic policy as he apparently had on foreign policy.

While Mr. Clinton's intervention might have forced Mr. Bush's timetable, the president got behind an assortment of long-standing administration proposals only after extraordinary pressure from other leading personalities, among them German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Robert Strauss and former President Nixon, who described the administration performance as "pathetic." Alerted by this barrage, Secretary of State James A. Baker III effectively took over management of the issue from Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, put together the various aid elements into a politically salable new package and got the president to speak out -- just in time.

Important follow-up is required. Congress will have to approve a $12 billion line of credit to the International Monetary Fund, which will be the major source of aid to the former Soviet states. In addition, the United States will have to underwrite about one-quarter of a $6 billion fund from the leading industrial democracies to stabilize the ruble. Mr. Bush also announced an increase in agricultural credits and called for the repeal of Cold War legislation that impedes two-way trade.

There is an urgency about all this that at last has penetrated White House thinking. As Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton both emphasized, the cost of foreign aid, unpopular as it may be, is minimal when compared to what the burden would be in confronting a nationalistic, expansionist Russia under dictatorial rule.

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