You need not be an economics expert to know that President Bush has one piece of his Soviet policy exactly right. Even a first-time visitor to the Soviet Union, like this reporter, can see and hear enough in three weeks to know that Bush is correct to reject massive U.S. economic aid to Mikhail Gorbachev's government.
The scale of the country and the depth of its problems dwarf any conceivable package of American grants and loans. If West Germany's Helmut Kohl thinks he must offer such aid as the price for Gorbachev's acceptance of German reunification, so be it. But Bush is right to say that until Gorbachev gets serious about dismantling the structural barriers to rational market decision-making that decades of communism have erected, pouring money into the top of the Soviet Union would do little to relieve the privation of its people.
When aid is given, it should, as Bush says, be in the form of technical assistance. What Bush does not yet seem to grasp is that in most cases, that aid can be most usefully given, not to the slow-moving, rigidified, status quo ministries of Gorbachev's central government but to the local and regional officials now on the cutting edge of change in the Soviet Union. Doing that will require the Bush administration to shift from its narrow focus on dealing with Gorbachev to a more broadly conceived effort to establish links with the next generation of leaders in what is certain to be a more decentralized Soviet Union.
Just how laggard the United States is in making this shift in its perspective and policy I learned on a visit to Leningrad. The consulate there -- our only diplomatic outpost outside Moscow -- serves the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the Leningrad area, all of which are historically and geographically linked to the West.
The independence forces in the Baltics and the non-Communist city government in Leningrad are pushing private enterprise as hard as they can, with burgeoning numbers of joint ventures and cooperatives. But the overworked U.S. consular staff includes no commercial attache' nor anyone with business or economic background.
The able U.S. consul general, Richard Miles, estimates that he has seen at least 1,000 visiting American businessmen in his office in the past two years, but fewer than a dozen of them have come back through a second time in pursuit of contracts or work. By contrast, he said, the Japanese are building contacts by placing Russian-language trainees in Leningrad and Baltic factories, and German bankers are ubiquitous return visitors.
Part of this is the familiar tale of American business' inability to see the usefulness of investing time, talent and resources in places where the payoff will be years away. But part of it is also the Bush administration's reluctance to encourage even private business to bypass Gorbachev's centralized bureaucracy. So worried is our government about Gorbachev's survival that we are neglecting opportunities to encourage those who are far more venturesome in the only kind of economic reform that can offer hope of ending the Soviet people's endemic poverty.
Bush is understandably preoccupied with doing as much diplomatic business with Gorbachev -- on arms reduction and resolution of regional conflicts -- as he can, while the crafty Soviet leader is still calling the shots. Only last week did Secretary of State James A. Baker III say for the first time that the United States is beginning to cultivate contacts with some of the independent political movements in the Soviet Union.
But the administration is running behind the curve of change. Even an official of the Communist Party Central Committee, Igor Malaschenko, told me, ''The decline of the central government is inevitable. It is impossible to reform from the center. The new designs for confederation and for the economy will be drafted largely in the republics.''
Yet the U.S. government persists in acting as if everything depended on Gorbachev's fate. The point was made best by 40-year-old Victor Acsyuchits, head of the fledgling Christian Democratic Party, when I went to see him in his shabby, 11th-floor apartment on the edge of Moscow.
''Where the West makes a mistake,'' he said, ''is to declare Gorbachev the initiator and leader of the democratic forces. It is not so.'' Acsyuchits argued that the current U.S. policy does not even serve Gorbachev's long-term interests. ''When the West bets only on Gorbachev, they do him no service; they dig his grave. They ratify his position as the head of the most reactionary force in this society, the Communist Party.
''The only way for the West to help Gorbachev is to help foster a civil society by aiding the non-party groups that Gorbachev could rely on to govern, instead of the Communist Party. In Poland, you were wise enough to see you should support Walesa, not Jaruzelski,'' the Communist general who outlawed Solidarity a decade ago and now serves as figurehead president. ''Why do you not see that here?''
I asked Acsyuchits if he had made this argument to any American official. ''No American official has ever talked to me,'' he said.