Richard M. Nixon has given President Bush and his challengers the sturdiest kind of political cover to argue for financial aid for Russia, even in the face of recession and election.
What he has not given them, apparently, is the courage to use the cover. So far, there are no takers, and without action a golden opportunity to help the former Soviet Union may slip by next month.
The opportunity involves the April 27 spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund, which already is deeply into what IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus calls the "unprecedented" work of transforming economies in Eastern Europe.
By then, or shortly afterward, Russia and some other former Soviet republics should have formally joined the IMF, already at work helping create banks and advising on the shift to a free-market economy. By then, too, the United States must be prepared to add to IMF capital to be used to stabilize currencies and reschedule debts to ease the domestic burden on the onetime republics.
Nixon's blunt message to Washington in recent days was that democracy will give way to "a new, more dangerous despotism" without a greater Western effort to salvage reforms in Russia and other former republics and let democracy survive.
THE CHOICE: The message is clear--pay to help struggling new market economies prosper now to keep the former empire from sliding back into tyranny or pay for another arms race if the new despots prove as globally bellicose as the old.
So far, Nixon says, American efforts have been "pathetically inadequate" to the task, a failing he marks down not only to the Bush Administration but to all the President's challengers as well.
President Bush says he agrees there is a problem but that there is not enough money to go around, even for domestic programs.
But the politics of "Americans first" that seems to worry Bush is not at all unanimous.
Two Republican senators and two Democrats, just back from a visit to Moscow, have joined in asking the White House to do more to help President Boris N. Yeltsin's Russia and other former republics.
Bush's ambassador to Russia, Robert Strauss, tells Congress that even Republican Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina want him to work harder to get an aid program going.
THE PROBLEM: But Bush still must say the magic words. He still has to ask the Democratic Congress for money. It is not in the nature of things--especially in election years--for Congress to take the first step.
Bush and Congress understand that the IMF needs $12 billion in new capital this year from the United States if it is to have enough money to meet its other loan commitments and still help Russia and its neighbors. As the President says, Washington does not have that kind of money lying around. But the U.S. contribution to the IMF would represent little more than the cost of the five extra B-2 bombers the President has told Congress he wants.
Given that the need for help is what Nixon called "the most important issue since the end of World War II," that does not seem too much for the President to ask.