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Insider : Between Caution and Euphoria: Crafting a Policy Toward Moscow

May 29, 1990|DOYLE McMANUS and ROBERT C. TOTH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Marveling at the headlong pace that characterizes U.S.-Soviet relations these days, a senior State Department official joked: "We seem to enter a new era every two weeks or so."

That may not be very far off the mark, at least as far as the changing focus of Administration policy is concerned. In little more than a year, the Bush Administration has already run through two distinct policies on how to deal with the Soviet Union. Now--on the eve of President Bush's summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--harried Administration architects are working on a third.

As the map of Europe has changed, and as the Soviet Union has moved from Gorbachev's early success to the brink of serious instability, the Administration's own outlook has come full circle: from caution to euphoria and back to caution again.

"President Gorbachev has made profound progress in his country, reforms so fundamental that the clock cannot be turned back," Bush said earlier this month, embracing a proposition that his own aides once debated hotly. "And yet," the President warned, "neither can we turn the clock ahead to know what kind of country the Soviet Union will be in years to come."

Hopes for a new, more cooperative U.S.-Soviet relationship, which reached a peak only six months ago at the first Bush-Gorbachev summit in Malta,have since been "tempered somewhat," a senior Bush adviser said. Now, the aim is not so much to achieve great things as to avoid greater problems. "Serious instability in the Soviet Union is much more thinkable than it was six months ago," he pointed out.

As a result, Administration officials and foreign policy experts outside the government are once again debating what the United States should do about the Man in the Kremlin.

Some critics charge that the Administration has consistently been a step behind events. At first, they say, it was too cautious to embrace Gorbachev; now it is too hesitant to adjust its approach.

"The policy of watching, waiting and keeping a low profile was a very successful one for the year 1989," said Michael Mandelbaum, a Sovietologist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But in 1990, with the Eastern European political revolutions completed, with the Soviet Union in turmoil, with policy dilemmas arising right and left and with real business to transact, that kind of policy may no longer be appropriate."

The Bush Administration has been debating the Gorbachev Question since its first day in office, but the question--like the policy--has had to change with events.

"The question was first: Is he real?" a senior official recalled. "Then it was: Can he last? Now it really is: Can he stay relevant? Can he manage what he's unleashed?"

Indeed, barely a year ago, Bush and his aides were deeply skeptical about Gorbachev's motives. As late as last May, after the Kremlin leader stung the Administration with surprise proposals for arms reductions in Europe, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater publicly derided the Soviet leader as a "drugstore cowboy."

Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the Administration's high command waged a major--and occasionally public--debate over whether Gorbachev was more than that. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was the first Administration official to spend any significant time with Gorbachev and with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, argued that the Kremlin finally was ready to do business.

Vice President Dan Quayle and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cautioned that Gorbachev's reforms might well not succeed--and in any case could easily be reversed if the Soviet leader were overthrown.

But Gorbachev impressed Bush with his actions, especially in Eastern Europe, where he began withdrawing Soviet troops and encouraging democratic reforms. American allies in Western Europe--particularly West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher--pressed for supporting the Soviet leader.

And Baker found a policy formula that cut through the debate over Gorbachev's chances of success: He argued that instability in the Soviet Union should not deter the United States from negotiating; rather, it should spur an effort to "lock in" Soviet concessions while they were still available.

For Bush, the turning point on this phase of the Administration's evolving policy came in October, when Gorbachev intervened to help oust East Germany's old-style Communist regime--an unexpected move that almost immediately resulted in the opening of the Berlin Wall. "That was a fairly decisive moment," one senior Bush adviser said. "From then on, (the Soviet Bloc) pretty much collapsed."

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