In lifting trade restrictions on the Soviet Union that date back nearly a generation and in granting American aid to help the Soviets in a time of economic crisis, President Bush has taken another long step toward closing the book on the Cold War era. His actions and his public comments also stir fresh hope that a new, more productive partnership can exist between the erstwhile superpower enemies.
The president struck exactly the right note in announcing the move at the White House Wednesday. "As I've said before," he remarked, "I want perestroika to succeed. The Soviet Union is facing tough times, difficult times. But I believe that this is a good reason to act now in order to help the Soviet Union stay the course of democratization and to undertake market reforms. The United States has an interest in a Soviet Union able to play a role as a full and prosperous member of the international community of states. And I'm hopeful that these initiatives will further that goal."
That doesn't assure a new path to peace or a new Soviet-American alliance on the lines of the one during World War II. The history of those relationships is replete with misunderstandings, missed opportunities and mutual feelings of betrayal. That history also includes the subject of American economic aid.
In 1917, after the Russian Revolution ended the rule of the czars, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson became the first major power to recognize the new provisional government. It then advanced to the new regime nearly $200 million as an incentive to maintain Russia as a U.S. ally during World War I. A year later, after Vladimir Lenin's new Soviet government came to power, the Soviets repudiated that debt. During the long years of non-recognition by the United States toward the Soviet Union that ensued until 1933, that debt, with interest, rose to $325 million. The Soviets owed an additional $500 million to American corporations and private citizens whose property had been seized by the regime of Josef Stalin.
Many of those debts were never repaid. Far greater suspicion and recrimination followed when massive American aid to the Soviet Union during World War II resulted in Soviet military adventurism and the advent of the Cold War.
Now that period, too, has passed, and both of the great powers are starting afresh. It's to Bush's great credit that he is responding to the new relationship positively and imaginatively. His latest moves toward the Soviet Union reinforce a sense that, when it comes to foreign affairs, he is one of the most accomplished presidents in years.
Jokes notwithstanding about his lack of "the vision thing," after two years in office, George Bush repeatedly has demonstrated an impressive world view. This has come in healthy contrast to the America-as-king swaggering of the Ronald Reagan era when the United States willfully, almost gleefully, flouted international law, mocked the United Nations charter, invaded small states and illegally mined their harbors in outright acts of undeclared war. Bush has skillfully and non-ideologically rekindled international alliances and helped to restore respect in international law.
It is not, of course, a perfect record. His penchant for secrecy, for stubbornness, for springing major decisions such as doubling U.S. troop deployment to the Persian Gulf without proper congressional notification or consultation and for rejecting the need to seek congressional approval for war have been noted critically here before. But overall, his is a record that commands respect and holds hope for the future.
Would that the same could be said for the domestic side of the president's ledger.
In recent days, while Bush was moving surely on the diplomatic front, his administration hit men have needlessly been sowing domestic division. Public statements by Vice President Quayle and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu questioning the loyalty and statesmanship of opponents have deliberately created controversy. By impugning motives of critics of Bush policies at home and abroad, and in a particularly slashing fashion, they are encouraging partisanship at the expense of bipartisanship.
Jolly they are not. Into this season of compassion and good will, they do not come gently or kindly. Their weapons are the blunderbuss, not the rapier. At a time when increasingly intractable economic and international questions must be faced, their tactics almost certainly will produce a political reaction that bodes ill for the second half of the Bush term.