Caution Is Watchword as U.S. Faces a New Era : Policy: Planners want to avoid moves such as the ill-advised intervention in the Soviet Union in 1918.
Buried in a dusty 1920 Pentagon report is a laudatory evaluation of what may be the least-remembered U.S. foreign intervention. “This expedition affords one of the finest examples in history of honorable, unselfish dealings . . . under very difficult circumstances to be helpful to a people struggling to achieve a new liberty,” the Army chief of staff reported.
The “expedition,” between 1918 and 1920, was the deployment to northern Russia and Siberia of 10,000 U.S. troops intended to move against the Bolsheviks on behalf of the White Russians in the chaotic days after the Russian Revolution.
And, while technically a military success, it also turned out to be one of the most ill-advised U.S. political gambits in history. Even the U.S. commander then, Gen. William Graves, later lamented: “The United States was a party to the efforts to overthrow the Soviets.”
Not surprisingly, the deep scars and suspicions that remained tainted half a century of U.S.-Soviet relations.
Decades later, bitter references to the U.S. expedition flowed through the secret correspondence from Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to President John F. Kennedy. During a 1959 visit to Los Angeles, an angered Khrushchev said: “Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil.”
“That kind of misjudgment is exactly what we’re trying to avoid this time around,” a senior Bush Administration official reflected last week. "(President) Woodrow Wilson was well intentioned. But (the United States) didn’t understand what was happening on the ground at the time. We don’t want to make similar mistakes.’
Caution is the catchword as the Bush Administration faces the historic task of shaping a whole new era of relations, after a second Soviet revolution, with the country--or possibly countries--that make up one-sixth of the world’s landmass. President Bush and his senior advisers are playing down the urgency of U.S. action. “Get the facts, deal from strength, then make decisions,” the President lectured at his Thursday news conference. “It’s going to take time to sort it out in its finality.”
So far, the Administration appears to have deliberately stopped short of even informal appraisal of how the tumult in the Soviet Union will affect a world in which the United States is now the singular dominant power. But the process of making those decisions is expected to begin on Tuesday after the President and Secretary of State James A. Baker III return from their August vacations.
“Is anything happening? No,” said a State Department official Friday. “We instinctively feel we have to be much more careful than the Europeans or anyone else in suggesting or making moves. This is likely to be a very slow process.”
“But is thinking going on?” he added. “Yes.”
In sharp contrast to the American role during the 1917 Russian Revolution, initial U.S. thinking now centers not on military action but on joint government and private economic incentives to influence the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union.
Policy planners within the Administration predict a two-pronged effort: First, a series of stopgap measures over the next six to eight months aimed at getting the Soviet Union through a tough winter of food shortages and political uncertainty without bloodshed. The initial steps were announced Thursday by Bush and British Prime Minister John Major.
A second phase will be designed to deal with the broader issues of structural and institutional reforms, defense conversions and moves toward a new market-oriented economic system. “This is a process that will take six to eight years rather than six to eight months,” the senior Administration official said. “That’s partly why we don’t want to rush into anything.”
The State Department official added: “The most important thing people are thinking about is how can we encourage political and market reforms. But then comes the even harder part: How can we help make them stick so we all end up with a kinder, gentler Soviet Union? We want to make sure we don’t lose it again.”
Rather than something like the Marshall Plan--which the United States no longer can afford and which would not work anyway because the Soviets don’t have the know-how that the Europeans did after World War II--Administration officials foresee heavy U.S. emphasis on private investment by American, European and Japanese corporations backed by government guarantees.
But even as a tentative framework for U.S. aid takes shape, Administration officials said that hammering out the details may prove to be a prolonged and deliberate process. “We’re not going to put anything in place in a few days time,” said the official. “We can afford to let things play out.”
“This is a fantastic development, and to think it will be sorted out in a week or 10 days would be foolish,” a high-ranking source said over the weekend. “It’s going to take years for us to sort it out.”
Indeed, comments from senior officials indicate that the Administration has not yet even determined whether the United States would be better off if the Soviet Union is fragmented, much less what to do about it.
Some Soviet specialists predicted that the process may be further slowed by differences within the Administration over long-term U.S. goals, or even by ignorance.
“We have a lot of leverage,” Jeremy Azrael, a Soviet analyst at the RAND Corp., said. “What we don’t have is any kind of consensus on what we want to apply that leverage for. None of us really has anywhere near enough empirical knowledge of who the key players are or what the underlying tendencies are to have confidence that we know all we need to know to make decisions.”
Others also warn against U.S. attempts to manipulate events, as happened after the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the name of U.S. national interests. “We have to recognize--and accept--that the Russians and the people of the former Soviet empire are going to put together their own future, and it will not necessarily be done with our best interests in mind,” said Harley Balzer, director of Russian studies at Georgetown University.
Still others question whether the Bush Administration, for all its promotion of a “new world order,” is as well-equipped as earlier presidents--men such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson--to lead the way.
“This is a President who is not much of a visionary in the FDR sense,” said Michael Beschloss, a Soviet expert and author. “As early as 1943, Roosevelt was thinking about the postwar world and that there should be a United Nations. Throughout his career, Bush has been more comfortable dealing with a crisis like Iraq than, in the absence of a crisis, deciding and pondering what the next 50 years is going to to be like.”
And several analysts have faulted the Administration for being behind the power curve over the last two tumultuous weeks, specifically in recognizing the Baltic states’ independence. “It would be nice if we do it before Upper Volta and Chad do,” Georgetown’s Balzer quipped.
In the long term, however, many analysts support a low-key U.S. role, centered on economic leverage as an incentive for democratic reforms and a peaceful transition. “Staying out is the only thing to do right now,” Balzer said. “It’s not our job--new world order or not--to determine the relationship between these republics or the political fate of the Soviet Union. Let them decide what they want to do. We need to stay cool.”
At the same time, however, several analysts urge specific short-term steps--particularly measures that would distance the United States from the fate of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
“One of the big lessons of the past two weeks is that we should be paying attention to the process rather than personalities,” said Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Center for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington.
Several analysts said that the Soviet crisis exposed the weak side of the President’s brand of personal diplomacy. The Administration felt that it had a grip on internal developments because of its close working relationship with the Kremlin’s leadership, the analysts said; it didn’t recognize that the Kremlin was becoming increasingly obsolete politically.
“Bush has developed almost a pathological attachment to Gorbachev, which is inexplicable in political terms,” Balzer said. “It may well be that Gorbachev is more of an obstacle than a solution to the problems in the Soviet Union. He’s beginning to get in the way. We’ve got to know when to let go.”
Right up until the aborted Soviet coup, the Administration strongly supported the principle of territorial integrity over self-determination--a stance that was evident in U.S. opposition to the breakup of Iraq after the Gulf War. Over the weekend, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft reaffirmed U.S. support for the preservation of Yugoslavia, despite what now appears to be its irrevocable fragmentation.
But the disintegration of the Soviet Union will generate new rules that could have a rippling impact worldwide on troubled nation-states, ranging from India to Iraq and several countries in Africa and Eastern Europe. Whatever its preferences, the Administration is going to have to be more realistic in dealing with the issue, the analysts said.
“The problems of post-colonialism were put off in many parts of the world,” said Ruble. “So many states are artificial. This is a global problem. So, what the United States does in the Soviet Union will have global implications.”
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl in Kennebunkport, Me., contributed to this story.