WASHINGTON — After almost a week of silence, the White House seemed to dismiss as hypothetical Thursday a remarkable statement by Secretary of State James A. Baker III that offered support to the Soviet Union if it sent troops into Romania.
"Baker was responding to a hypothetical situation that became more and more hypothetical thereafter," a White House spokesman said. "He (Baker) was not making a planned statement of policy."
Baker's comment, made on a television interview program last weekend, caused some embarrassment in the State Department and sent a ripple of amazement through the foreign policy community, where such high-level endorsement for a Soviet military intervention was seen as unprecedented.
On Thursday, one Administration official indicated that Baker's statement was made off the cuff without consulting his staff.
The White House continued to decline to say directly whether President Bush agreed with the position. However, a presidential aide said, "I'm not sure that if asked today, he (Baker) would answer the question the same way."
Baker was replying to a question on the "Meet the Press" program on the NBC television network about the bloody fighting between the Romanian army, which supported the new reform government, and security forces loyal to deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
"We would support efforts to assist the Popular Front for National Salvation there in Romania. . . . So, I think that we would be inclined, probably, to follow the lead--follow the example--of France, who, today, has said that if the Warsaw Pact felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of the opposition, that it would support that action."
Asked directly if he would support Soviet intervention against the Ceausescu forces, Baker replied, "That would be my view, yes."
The remark was soon eclipsed by the Romania army's defeat of the security forces and the arrest and execution of Ceausescu. Also, the Romanians had said that they wanted no Soviet military help and the Soviets said that they had no intention of intervening. But the words may well come back to haunt the United States one day if the Soviet Union turns into a less stabilizing force in Eastern Europe than Baker now apparently considers it.
To some degree, Baker's remarks seemed an extension of a similar statement he made several weeks earlier regarding unrest in the Soviet Union. He had indicated sympathy in case Moscow used force in some circumstances.
The United States would be understanding, he said, if the Soviets imposed martial law to prevent hostile ethnic groups, such as Armenians and Azerbaijanis, from killing each other. On the other hand, "we would have great trouble," he said, if peaceful demonstrators were crushed by Red Army tanks.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former senior official in the Richard M. Nixon Administration who is now at the Brookings Institution think-tank, said that "Baker seems obsessed with stability and with the idea that only the Soviets can keep order in Eastern Europe. This is the second time he seemed to invite the Soviets to use force, and I find his statements uncalled for, unnecessary and unwise."
Sonnenfeldt, who himself once was accused of seeing too much good in the order enforced by the Soviets in Eastern Europe, said that "we shouldn't give the Soviets a blank check," as Baker appeared to do.
"Their reputation for intervention is bad, whatever their present behavior, so let's not assume they are the policemen for that part of the world. Let's not cling to that anachronism," he said.