Time magazine chose two men as its Man of the Year for 1990: George Bush and George Bush. The first was the George Bush who has been triumphant in foreign affairs. The second was a George Bush whose domestic policy comes down to a single incomprehensible line in his State of the Union speech: "If you've got a hammer, find a nail." Say what?
But there's a third George Bush, and he's the guy who on a given day is not so hot on foreign policy either. That occurs with some frequency when it comes to the Soviet Union. Especially recently, Bush seems to have no clear idea of what to do. Only with evident reluctance has he been able to criticize Mikhail Gorbachev for his crackdown in the Baltic states, especially, Lithuania. Give this man a hammer.
The president has a genuine dilemma. In the last several years, the United States has put egg after egg into one basket: Gorbachev. This reliance on a single person is perilous, but it's understandable. Gorbachev has made a remarkable difference. Another Soviet leader might never have renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine and pulled out of country after country -- not only Afghanistan but Eastern Europe as well. In the manner of Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog, Gorbachev knows one simple thing, but he knows it well: reality. When faced by it, he accommodates.
The late philosopher Sidney Hook once examined the careers of men who, all by themselves, seemed to change the course of history. He called them "heroes," and Napoleon was one. What Hook would say about Gorbachev we cannot know. But it seems clear the Soviet leader doesn't have the dominance to be one of Hook's heroes. Instead of being captain of his ship, he seems to be clinging to a raft.
That being the case, Bush should do two things. First, Gorbachev must be reminded of his own words. After the massacre in Lithuania, for instance, Bush might have dug into Gorbachev's 1988 speech to the United Nations. There, he would find these words: "Freedom of choice is a universal principle that should allow no exceptions." Well, what's Lithuania if not an exception?
Second, the United States should become one of the forces with which Gorbachev has to contend. Force and violence put the Soviet Union together, and only force and violence can keep it from coming apart. Gorbachev, no less than the czars, knows that. If he is feeling pressure from the Communist Party, the military and other conservative institutions to retain the old czarist-Communist empire, then the United States must exert a counterforce. We have much to offer the Soviet Union, and it sorely needs all the help it can get.
Thus far, though, Bush's response has been tepid -- the sort of pro-forma rebukes that remind you of a parent pretending to be indignant at a child's wrong, but altogether charming, behavior. His stated reason for postponing the next Washington-Moscow summit was the war in the Gulf. A little plain talk would have been better: events in Vilnius were more like it. In contrast to Bush, the European Community and Congress have not hesitated to express their indignation. They have threatened economic reprisals.
But no matter what the Founding Fathers intended, Congress just doesn't have the clout of the presidency. We saw that last year when Congress, not Bush, attempted to treat Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an outlaw state. The administration fought those attempts, and Saddam invaded Kuwait. He was entitled to think Bush would react with a yawn. Now the same pattern is being repeated. Congress has waxed indignant over Lithuania and the crackdown in the Soviet Union. The president has said the bare minimum.
It has become apparent that except when personally challenged, Bush reacts glacially to a crisis. He was slow to recognize that Gorbachev was the real McCoy, unable to respond when Panamanian officers launched a coup against Manuel Noriega and just plain out to lunch when it came to initially sizing up Saddam Hussein. Until he can personalize an issue, he remains passive. But once having personalized a foreign policy problem, he then goes all the way: to the sounds of much name-calling, he rises to the challenge.
Well, Gorbachev is something of a Bush pal. Besides, at the moment Gorbachev is all the president has to work with -- preferable to any unknown successor. The Soviet leader is not Hook's "hero," however, but a man who has been seized by the throat by historical forces. He is moving in the direction of least resistance. For the sake of all that Gorbachev himself once promised, he needs to be pushed by a firm president the other way. Too bad that hasn't happened. Of the three George Bushes, the wrong one is running Soviet policy.