HELSINKI -- In the shortest, most limited and strangest of all superpower summits, Mikhail Gorbachev vigorously avoided playing junior partner to George Bush in the "new world order" proclaimed by the American president.
The international picture of Presidents Bush and Gorbachev standing shoulder-to-shoulder against Saddam Hussein was achieved here with an unequivocal joint statement. But in the press conference, the Russian leader deftly separated himself from the United States while returning the Soviet Union to the maelstrom of Mideast politics.
"Look at that statement," Secretary of State James A. Baker III told us shortly after the summit ended. "It's everything we wanted." But unless the two leaders forged secret agreements during seven hours of conversation, it is difficult to see how Bush's campaign to punish Iraq's aggression was furthered during the long weekend in Helsinki.
One senior official admitted to us, not for quotation, some measure of disappointment in Bush's failure to get Gorbachev to order remaining Soviet advisers out of Iraq. Gorbachev's press conference statement that he had reduced the number of "experts" (the same term used by Saddam) from 196 to 150 gives no comfort to Washington.
Actually, Soviet advisers exceed 5,000, with about 1,000 of them military. What's more, since the invasion of Kuwait, the Kremlin has continued resupply operations and even signed some new military contracts. Bush is well aware of that intelligence but did not play it up here in the interests of overall U.S.-Soviet relations.
However, Gorbachev's refusal to break these ties is an answer to the Iraqi dictator. Saddam Hussein's summit-eve taunt raising "doubts about the place of the Soviet Union as a superpower" hit too close for comfort.
The summit crystallized for Gorbachev what one administration official privately regards as a choice of three options: embrace Saddam, which is impossible; play junior partner to Bush, which is embarrassing; or, offer a separate course, particularly in the Mideast. At Helsinki, the crafty Soviet leader cleverly embarked on the third course.
The difference came over not in the carefully drafted communique but in the press conference. Bush clearly was more open to the military option than was Gorbachev. Bush showed more concern than Gorbachev about humanitarian aid for Iraqi children breaking the boycott.
With some delight, Gorbachev announced that Bush was letting the Soviet Union back in the Middle East policy game -- a longtime Kremlin goal. Then, celebrating his return to the desert, Gorbachev won Arab plaudits by linking the Palestine question to Iraqi aggression; Bush said no.
For the first time since he began summiting with Ronald Reagan in 1985, Gorbachev this weekend was in danger of losing the initiative. Bush began the one-day summit with bouncy exuberance. Gorbachev, a good 50 percentage points less popular back home than Bush is in the United States, came over as subdued.
There was a sense conveyed by the Soviets that they would just as soon be elsewhere than in Helsinki seconding Bush's new world order. With Russian bread lines growing as their economy reaches a crisis, Soviet citizens could not care less about Saddam Hussein.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev had his back up in response to suggestions by Bush at the news conference that more economic aid might be forthcoming in response to Soviet cooperation. Moscow's help, he declared, cannot be "bought with dollars."
The two presidents left here with a question left unanswered for the public: Would the Soviets acquiesce in a U.S. military strike against Iraq? The hint by U.S. officials is that they would. But Gorbachev, not willing to be junior partner, sent no message to the world.
Since this meeting was for public consumption, it is hard to see exactly what it achieved for U.S. interests. Mikhail Gorbachev, at death's door politically back home, showed he still is a master at the diplomatic table by getting back in the Mideast with American permission. Perhaps George Bush should reconsider his impulse to call these quickie summits.