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How Bush Could Get a Head on Mt. Rushmore : Russia: When Yeltsin hints that he would part with Siberia if the price were right, the President should make a deal. Jefferson would be proud.

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition."

George Bush is no threat to Mount Rushmore; he proved it again at the Munich Summit.

Boris Yeltsin, desperate to stabi lize his country’s deteriorating posi tion, made a bombshell announcement in Munich. Russia, he said, was willing to consider sales of oil fields, factories or land to pay some of its $70 billion in foreign debt. Bush mumbled something sympathetic; Thomas Jefferson would have gotten into gear.

In 1803, Jefferson heard that Napoleon was in financial and political trouble. Result? The Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon got some cash and got rid of an expensive liability he couldn’t defend. Jefferson got a second term and a spot on the Mountain.

Which brings us to Yeltsin’s proposal, and to what Jefferson might have said in reply.

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Russia needs a fresh start, not a few billion deutsche marks. Tiny East Germany is getting 1 trillion dollars from the West to finance its leap into capitalism. Russia needs at least that much. It’s more, much more, than we can hand out as aid, but as an investment? As part of a deal?

Jefferson wouldn’t have wasted his Munich time haggling with France over the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. That’s not how you get on Mount Rushmore. Jefferson would have taken Yeltsin aside and made him an offer--a trillion or two for Siberia.

Not, of course, the whole thing. Southwestern Siberia is where most of the people live. But that still leaves an area larger than the United States with less than 15,000,000 people.

We could afford this if we wanted to; America has plenty of bankers who could structure the deal. It’s several times the size of the annual budget deficit, but so what? At least we’d have something to show for it--we wouldn’t be stealing from our children but investing for them. And it would pay.

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Siberia is like the American West: Its coastal regions are potentially important in world trade, but its major wealth comes from natural resources. Oil, diamonds, timber, gold--things like that. Foreign investors worry: Mines are expensive, and so are roads; it will be years before these investments begin to pay off, and who can say what kind of government Russia will have in 10 or 20 years? A Russian government could nationalize foreign properties or tax them to death, and there would be little that foreign investors could do.

But run up the Stars and Stripes, and investors--from the United States, Europe and Japan--would start, literally, a Gold Rush. The U.S. government could sell off timber, oil rights, mineral claims and property at prices that would allow investors to make a profit while recouping the cost of the purchase. Uncle Sam not only gets money from selling the land; he taxes the profits.

There’s more. Part of the deal would be for cash and part for credits: with, say, half the money, the Russians could place orders in the United States. Fiber optics, consultants, computers, machine tools--whatever they wanted from whoever made the best deal, as long as the stuff was American-made. Over, say, a 20-year payment period, we would see something like $75 billion in exports each year to Russia. Minimum. That means 1 million jobs in today’s 50 states--plus millions more in the new ones.

And we’d be the world’s largest oil producer. Goodby OPEC. Goodby trade deficit, goodby stagnant economy. Hello boom, hello increased tax revenues. With luck, the economic growth, plus mineral, land and timber sales in Siberia, will do more than pay for the purchase. Strange but true: Even with all the incidental expenses--environmental cleanup, infrastructure--the deal could help balance the budget.

The combination of new territories in Asia and a vast, suddenly solvent market in European Russia would amount, literally, to a new frontier with new opportunities and challenges for generations to come. Go East, young women, young men. This deal would double our size and put us on the Pacific Rim at the intersection of China, Korea and Japan. Jefferson, who inspired and financed the first American expedition to Siberia, would have loved it.

At any rate, Siberia would be a better buy than the other “new frontier” on offer. Dan Quayle wants to spend trillions of dollars to send people to Mars:Siberia is closer, has better weather, and Mars doesn’t have any oil. Add it up.

But would the Russians sell? When Japan asked for the four tiny islands the former Soviet Union took after World War II, Mikhail S. Gorbachev sniffly answered that the country did not have any spare territory lying around. Well, OK, but in Gorbachev’s day the Russians had not yet realized how much trouble they were in.

Russia is going through something much worse than our Depression. Most Russians have lost their life savings to inflation. Pensioners will never again enjoy their living standards of the past. Medical services are decades from recovery. Educational opportunities are drying up. Millions, perhaps tens of millions of Russians are bracing for unemployment. Fuel prices are heading for world levels, even as Russian wages remain among the world’s lowest. Tens of millions of Russians may have to choose next winter between eating and staying warm. The winter after that, they might not even have the choice.

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Russia is surrounded by enemies. Nuclear accidents have poisoned the soil and water, and conventional pollution is at levels undreamed of in the West. Russia’s industries are decades behind their Western rivals. Russian mangers know almost nothing about how to manage in the capitalist world;Russia lacks bankers and accountants; its communications system is 50 years--and billions of dollars--behind the times.

With the right dea, Russia can pay off its foreign debt, modernize the infrastructure, retrain its managers, stabilize its currency and still distribute several thousand dollars to every family in a country where the monthly wage is under $20. Not good enough? We can sweeten the deal. Qualified Russian students could have their tuition paid at U.S. public colleges--good for the students, good for the colleges, good for both countries. We can set up a Peace Corps operation to teach English, computers and business skills across Russia. If they want, we can throw in a special immigration quota: x hundred thousand Russians get green cards for the next 15 years. Why not? We’ll have plenty of room. We can provide investment guarantees to encourage U.S. firms to invest in the Russian economy. Diplomatically, we could help Russia sort out relations with its neighbors. They want something else, we can talk. Mutual defense treaty? Free Trade Zone? Technology transfers? Transit rights? Oil deliveries? Disneyland? An NFL franchise? Talk to us, Boris, fax us your wish list. This isn’t beads-for-Manhattan; we want to make you happy .

Everybody wins. We get a boom and a new frontier; Japan gets its islands (no charge for these, but Japan ponies up when we finance the deal); Russia gets a fresh start; Eastern Europe gets a big boost and Western Europe heaves a sigh of relief.

James A. Baker III, call your office. Pull this off by November: You’ll get a Peace Prize, your boss gets another term and you don’t have to run the campaign. And in 1996, nobody will be interested in Danforth “Mars” Quayle; you’ll be the man who balanced the budget, created millions of jobs, canceled the trade deficit and put the new stars in our flag.

Just don’t move too slow. Remember, Mount Rushmore is waiting.


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