WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration enters a key round of U.S.-Soviet talks this week increasingly pessimistic about the ability of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to carry out his ambitious policy of perestroika.
Eight months after taking office, President Bush has devised no broad new strategy to deal with the revolutionary changes taking place in Moscow. Instead, officials say, he intends to resist pressure from Moscow and Capitol Hill to move more quickly.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III outlined the position that the Administration will take when he said at a news conference earlier this week that the United States wants perestroika to succeed but cannot do very much to help. So "we should find points of mutual advantage," Baker said, agreements that will help Moscow while also serving U.S. interests in arms control, regional conflicts and other areas.
Talks in Wyoming
Those opportunities will be explored when Bush meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in Washington today and in more extended talks beginning Friday in Wyoming.
As a result of the Administration's cautiousness, modest progress--but no breakthroughs--are expected on arms control issues such as nuclear testing and chemical warfare, plus some movement on strategic arms cuts and understandings on human rights and other issues.
"We've been approaching this relationship with a proper degree of prudence," Baker said, ". . . because we can have no assurance with respect to what the final result (of perestroika ) will be. So, we shouldn't go out and, as someone said, do something dumb."
But the White House faces an array of critics, both at home and abroad, who complain that its policy of prudence will cause it to miss a "window of opportunity" created by Gorbachev's desire and ability to forge new agreements.
"We want Soviet-American relations to develop at a quicker pace than they have been developing now," Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov said Wednesday in a frank expression of Soviet impatience. Earlier, Shevardnadze accused the Administration of "foot dragging" on arms control talks.
The Kremlin's concern is understandable: Gorbachev sits on a political powder keg at home, facing what he has acknowledged to be a "revolutionary" situation. Any new victory, including U.S.-Soviet agreements, could bolster his position as well as his reforms.
Indeed, the debate within the Administration about Gorbachev's prospects has led to an increasingly pessimistic consensus about the future of perestroika , Gorbachev's policy of economic and political restructuring . It holds that while Gorbachev is unlikely to be overthrown, his ambitious attempt to restructure Soviet society simply is not working.
The most likely outcome, some officials believe, is that Gorbachev eventually will be forced to retreat from perestroika to a more conservative strategy that will leave his reforms largely unfinished.
William H. Webster, director of the CIA, said this week that with criticism of perestroika mounting , time is running out for Gorbachev.
'Time Is Shrinking'
"Some of the analysts are trying to estimate how much time he has before this (criticism) catches up to him," Webster said. "I'd say, if anything, that time is shrinking."
Among the rationales for the Administration's go-slow strategy, one senior official said, is the belief that the Soviets are "so preoccupied with domestic affairs that there are limits to what they can do" to settle major U.S.-Soviet differences.
"They're still sorting out who the new thinkers and the old thinkers are," the official said. "There are a limited number of people in Moscow whom we can deal with. Even Shevardnadze is pretty deeply engaged in domestic affairs."
Another justification cited for U.S. caution is the disappointment experienced by the Administration when it attempted to engage Moscow in a dialogue on Soviet economic problems.
In June, for example, a governmental group undertook what one official described as "a substantial review" of economic relations between the superpowers.
"We wanted to try to initiate a dialogue, basically to teach the Soviets how to turn their system into a market economy, under the cover of talking about cooperation," this official said.
Among the ideas discussed were loosening Export-Import Bank restrictions to promote more trade and bringing the Soviet Union gradually into relationships with Western economic institutions.
But by August, after a series of U.S.-Soviet meetings, most of the ideas were dropped. "It was our conclusion that this was really premature," the official said.
The Administration also has been disappointed by Soviet actions in the Third World. Some U.S. officials had predicted that Gorbachev would move swiftly to cut Soviet military aid to client regimes in Afghanistan and Nicaragua to free funds for domestic reforms.