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From the archives: U.S. Struggles to React to Gorbachev Reforms

WASHINGTON -- In a debate that is growing like a slowly gathering storm, President Bush and his critics have begun arguing seriously over what may be the most important foreign policy question of his Administration: What should the United States do to help Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev?

With increasing insistence, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and others have accused Bush of "timidity" in the face of an unprecedented opportunity for change. Bush, defending his approach as "prudent," has said that he wants to keep his options open in the event Gorbachev's perestroika reforms fail.

The two sides agree that it is in the interest of the United States to see Gorbachev's reforms succeed. The partisan gibes stem from fundamental differences over two other questions: How far should the United States go in trying to help? And, equally important, can the United States make a significant impact on internal reforms in a country as large and troubled as the Soviet Union?

Proponents of a more helpful policy argue that Gorbachev is in serious trouble--and that if Bush does not act soon, the chance for far-reaching change in the Soviet Union may be lost.

"This is an opportunity to advance our own interests and we shouldn't let it slip by," said Mitchell. "I believe there are steps we can take to improve relations with the Soviet Union . . . and at the same time encourage political and economic reform."

Mitchell has urged Bush to grant most-favored-nation trading status to the Soviets and to offer them a chance to participate in Western economic organizations. The Administration has rejected those ideas, at least for now.

"This notion that somehow we can assist Mr. Gorbachev's reform inside the Soviet Union, I think, is a dangerous one and a fallacious one," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said. "Those kinds of changes and reforms, much as we wish to encourage them . . , can only be determined by the Soviet people themselves."

Officially, Bush's position is that he hopes to see Gorbachev's reform program succeed. But the President puts most of his emphasis on remaining cautious--in case the Soviet leader fails.

"I want to have a prudent defense policy," he told reporters last week. "I don't want to do something naive or silly in defense just because we are working more closely with the Soviets today. . . . We're not building our foreign policy on the success of any one individual or the failure of any one individual. We're building it on what is the best for the free world and the United States."

Goals May Not Be Reached

Bush's caution stems in part from forecasts by U.S. intelligence analysts that perestroika is increasingly likely to fall short of solving the Soviet Union's immense problems, from economic paralysis in Moscow to separatist fervor in the outlying republics.

"He's running into big problems," a senior official said. "They seem to be getting worse. And his chances of success, by almost any definition of that term, probably aren't increasing."

The President's advisers do not believe that Gorbachev himself is in imminent danger of being overthrown. In terms of personal power, the official said, "he's stronger than he's ever been."

But they do not want to link U.S. policy too closely to the success of Gorbachev's ambitious plans--lest he, or a successor, decide in the face of a crisis to bring the reform movement to a halt.

"We think it's in the interest of the United States for perestroika to succeed, obviously," the senior official said. "But if we gear it to Gorbachev himself and he doesn't make it. . , then our policy is really hostage to events that we can't possibly outguess."

Also, Administration officials contend, the United States has few opportunities to help the Soviets significantly.

'Very Little We Can Do'

"There's very little we can do with respect to economic reforms," Cheney said. Nor, he said, can the United States "help them deal with such problems as ethnic unrest in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the yearning of the Baltic republics for independence, the unrest in the Ukraine."

The Administration's critics reject that reasoning. "It's just another make-weight reason to do nothing and hang timidly back," charged Mitchell. Instead, the critics say, there are steps the Administration could take now that could give perestroika a boost without much risk.

Mitchell urged Bush last week to take two specific actions: to waive the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denies most-favored-nation trade status to the Soviet Union, as long as Moscow continues to restrict free emigration; and to make "a clear statement" that the United States will work to help Moscow participate in international economic institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Both moves, he said, would have "enormous symbolic importance" for Gorbachev.

Others have suggested moves to expand U.S.-Soviet trade, including lifting some of the restrictions that now block export of U.S. machine tools and other products that could have military applications.

Richard C. Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter, said the Administration should also consider more direct forms of assistance, beginning with emergency food aid.

A 'Crunch' for Food

"The immediate crunch for Gorbachev is food," Holbrooke said. "There are plenty of ways we can provide food aid, and we wouldn't suffer unless we overly subsidize it."

Over the longer run, Holbrooke said, the Administration should consider credits to Moscow to help Gorbachev navigate the transition from a state-run Communist economy to a market-oriented system. Soviet officials have not asked for this kind of help yet, but they have told U.S. and Western European officials that they are considering it, officials said.

The Administration's response has been to echo Bush's plea for "prudence." A senior official said that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment will be lifted only when the Supreme Soviet enacts legislation guaranteeing the right of free emigration. Another official said that the idea of bringing the Soviet Union into GATT or other Western economic institutions--even as an observer--is "very premature."

Cheney and other Pentagon officials fear that relaxing export restrictions could lead to an unwanted flow of militarily useful technology to a still-hostile Kremlin.

"He makes the argument that the Soviet military's main interest in economic reform is gaining access to Western technology," one official said. One Pentagon aide, David Wigg, even argued at a recent conference that the best course for the West would be to cut off all exports of machinery to Moscow--a strategy that "would seriously retard Soviet economic growth . . . and put great pressure on Moscow to accommodate Western security concerns."

'Don't Have the Resources'

And more direct forms of aid are out of the question, officials said.

"We don't have the resources to help Poland or Hungary," observed Dmitri Simes, a Sovietologist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Helping the Soviet Union is really beyond belief."

But behind the scenes, the Administration is cautiously exploring ways to help Gorbachev pursue perestroika. Last month, Secretary of State James A. Baker III discussed economic reform for almost three hours with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze as they flew together to Jackson Hole, Wyo.

As a result of that talk and an equally unprecedented economic discussion between U.S. and Soviet officials during the Jackson Hole meeting, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Baker adviser Robert B. Zoellick, both staunch free-marketers, are heading to Moscow in mid-October to advise the Kremlin on how a capitalist economy works.

"That may be what they need most--advice and technical aid," said a senior official.

At the same time, officials noted, the Bush Administration has helped Gorbachev politically with a policy of deliberate restraint on the splintering Soviet empire. Baker and other officials have lent only the most low-key support to demands for independence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and they have said that any change in the Baltic republics should be peaceful. And when Gorbachev's populist rival, Boris N. Yeltsin, visited Washington, Bush discreetly accorded him only a brief "drop-in" meeting, with no photographers allowed.

Shevardnadze Thankful

The Soviets have returned the favor. After the Jackson Hole meeting, Shevardnadze--who earlier chided the Administration for moving too slowly on arms control--pointedly thanked both Bush and Baker for their "moral (and) political support for perestroika. "

"We're moving with the Soviet Union now," a senior official said confidently. "We're quite content and on schedule."

Still, the issue is unlikely to go away. Mitchell and other Democrats say that they will continue criticizing the Administration for what they see as inaction. Soviet officials say that they intend to ask for more Western cooperation as their economic reforms get under way. And if Gorbachev's enterprise runs into even greater trouble--as the analysts expect--the question will inevitably pose itself: Has the West done enough to help?

"There is a downside to preaching nothing but caution," a State Department official said ruefully. "No matter what we do, we're going to look reactive."

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