During George Bush's confrontation with Baltic leaders at the White House last week, a tough-minded fighter for independence muttered "appeasement." The president shot back: "Don't use that word!"

Shaken by the rejoinder but remaining properly polite, Estonian parliamentary leader Mari-Ann Rikken continued to work the appeasement theme. She argued that the United States "looks the other way" when Mikhail Gorbachev's internal police murder anti-Moscow nationalists to stop the Baltic states from regaining the independence Stalin stole half a century ago.

That is painful for a president fighting a major war for Kuwait's independence and basing his war squarely on the "morality" of the new world order. Fighting a righteous war against Iraq but "looking the other way" in the Baltics smacks of selective morality.

But his reason is compelling even for conservative members of Congress who mistrust Gorbachev's retreat toward police repression: the Gulf War. Republican lawmakers hold their tongues on grounds that one war at a time is enough to fight. Where they part company with Bush is that the survival of Gorbachev is vital to U.S. interests.

The president has come to a tentative decision, made after Tuesday's session with the Baltic leaders, either to postpone the Feb. 11 U.S.-Soviet summit or move it out of Moscow. That is an immense disappointment to Gorbachev, who had pressed hard for no change in the Kremlin meeting.

But ditching the summit seems to be as far as Bush is willing to go, at least for now, and that decision may have had as much to do with U.S.-Soviet differences over the new START treaty as with the Baltics. Except for summit tampering, the president has refused to make any concessions to those who think the time is long past for the United States to come out foursquare for Baltic independence just as it has for Kuwait's.

Two weeks ago a private overture arrived in the White House from Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic and the most powerful figure in the reform movement. Yeltsin wants to come here for serious talks with Bush and his key Cabinet officers, but once again he has been rebuffed. Administration officials told us Bush worries that receiving him in the White House would be an affront to Gorbachev.

In truth, it is impossible for Bush to support Baltic independence without affronting Gorbachev. But when the overhanging shadow of Kuwait and the pledge of a new foreign policy based on idealism is added, Bush traps himself in a moral cul-de-sac.

He has explained the issue privately by insisting that pressuring Gorbachev to relax his grip on the Baltics would play into the hands of new-breed Stalinist hard-liners who have been gaining power every day. Bush does not yet believe that Gorbachev himself may be exploiting the support of anti-nationalist hard-liners, such as the KGB, the internal police and the army, to put down explosive nationalist movements in and far beyond the Baltics.

In fact, he takes at face value Gorbachev's claim that the killings in Lithuania and Latvia were the responsibility of local army officers -- a view considered preposterous by Soviet specialists in the U.S. government. One member of Congress left a White House briefing actually comparing Gorbachev's culpability in the Baltic massacre with Richard Nixon's for the Kent State killings 20 years ago.

There are administration officials who put a Gulf label on Bush's gentle treatment of Gorbachev on the Baltics: If the United States pressures the Soviet president, Gorbachev will apply the pressure to Bush by threatening to pull out of the anti-Saddam Gulf war coalition. A Soviet call for a diplomatic settlement would have worldwide resonance.

Administration officials told us this was not mentioned in the Baltic session last week. Instead, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft argued there is an absolute necessity to "save" Gorbachev for America's sake -- to prevent the Soviet Union from spinning off into anarchy. He and other presidential aides said that canceling the new economic aid package for Moscow would be only a "pinprick" and that there is "no leverage" by which Soviet conduct can be influenced on behalf of Baltic independence.

What makes the predicament so difficult for Bush is his insistence on a new world order based on morality, not Realpolitik, regional imperatives or some other principle. He is boxed in by his sermons on the "morality" of the Gulf issue, defending the war as "a clear case of good vs. evil" and proclaiming there has been "nothing of this moral importance since World War II."

If such idealistic sentiments can work at all, Bush may find they must be applied equally everywhere, even to the poor Baltics. If not, he risks the charge of appeasement.