Storm warnings already hung over the summer White House on Walker’s Point outside Kennebunkport, Me., when the telephone in George Bush’s book-lined bedroom wakened him a few minutes before midnight. From his hotel down the road, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft informed the President not of the progress of hurricane Bob, but of another, more sinister gale that threatened global havoc. Just minutes earlier, the Moscow station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency had cabled his report of a Kremlin coup to CIA headquarters in Langley,
Va., confirming Washington’s worst fears. In a stunning predawn strike that caught governments around the world off guard, an unlikely group of Soviet hard-liners had resuscitated the dread spectre of the Cold War and dealt a potentially devastating blow to Bush’s vaunted new world order.
Hopes: Over the next hours, as the hurricane lashed the Maine coast and the President sped back to Washington aboard a storm-tossed Air Force One, the political climate looked correspondingly grim. Signalling the gravity, Bush had put on a blazer and tie, a marked contrast to last August’s Persian Gulf crisis when he briefed reporters from his golf cart. And later, as critics accused Bush of having counted too much on a single figure,
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, then failing to support him with sufficient economic aid, Democrats glimpsed an unexpected break in their gloomy electoral fortunes for 1992.
But their hopes proved as short-lived as the coup itself. Three days later,
Bush stood outside his Walker’s Point house, back in a windbreaker, fresh from a telephone talk with the newly restored Gorbachev—and basking in yet another foreign-policy triumph. “He sort of lucked out again,” said William Schneider of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute. “This further increases the stature gap between himself and any Democrats who might run against him.”
With Gorbachev’s announcement last Saturday that he was resigning as Communist party leader, the drama seemed so tidily resolved
that some analysts said that it could have been scripted by Bush’s campaign team. “This was a made-for-television coup,” said Sovietologist Jerry Hough of North Carolina’s Duke University. “It was even the right length for a miniseries: in 72 hours, you had a struggle of good versus evil with the good prevailing and all the action happening at centre stage in Moscow. Now, we even have a new matinee idol.”
But as administration officials lavished praise on the man who emerged as the coup’s star, Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin, whom they had pointedly snubbed until his election in June, Hough warned against a policy shift based on the drama of TV clips. What ended the coup was a split in the Soviet military, he argued, not the heroism of a man who represents only the Russian republic in the vast Soviet jigsaw. Withdrawing support from Gor-
bachev, Hough said, “could be extremely dangerous—you could get another military coup.”
Still, a shift seemed under way in Kennebunkport after the coup’s collapse as administration officials began sending mixed signals. Publicly, Bush protested that U.S. policy remained unchanged, and he denied that Yeltsin’s new stature diminished Gorbachev’s standing. But a senior White House aide privately made clear the administration’s disillusionment with the Soviet leader. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the aide criticized Gorbachev for declaring his continued allegiance to the Communist party and called on him to rein in the military and the KGB. When Gorbachev resigned as party general secretary at week’s end, the White House applauded. “We welcome this news as another step forward in the reform process,” said a written statement.
As for Bush’s feelings towards Yeltsin, there has been an undisguised turnabout. Two years after refusing him an official reception in the Oval Office, in part because of an apparent distaste for Yeltsin’s hunger for publicity, Bush expressed open admiration for a leader who
faced down the Soviet army from on top of a tank. “In this instance,” Bush said, “the flamboyance is a very positive quality as you climb up there and encourage your people.” For Bush, who counts heavily on his personal chemistry with fellow leaders, another bond developed during two telephone calls with Yeltsin while he was under siege in the Russian parliament, conveniently called “the white house.” The Russian leader carefully credited Bush’s
statements with helping to stave off the military crackdown—a tribute all the more welcome to an administration that the coup had apparently caught by surprise.
In fact, while U.S. officials blamed the unravelling of the plot on the coup leaders’ disorganization, the Bush administration itself was scrambling to improvise a response. Despite the fact that the CIA had warned about Gorbachev’s vulnerability as long as two years ago, policymakers had chosen to ignore his fragility.
Said Hough: “They thought the CIA was too alarmist.”
Hailed: Even more embarrassing was the fact that only three weeks earlier, during the Moscow summit, Bush had discounted then-VicePresident Gennady Yanayev, who emerged as the coup’s figurehead. Greeted at the airport by Yanayev, who also accompanied him on Air Force One to Kiev, the President and his aides privately mocked the Russian-speaking official after their Ukrainian hosts had insulted Yanayev by providing only an English translator.
Adding to the impression of a White House in disarray was the fact that the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow was temporarily leaderless. Former ambassador Jack Matlock had left his post, and his replacement, Democratic dealmaker Robert Strauss, had not even been sworn in. Hailed only a month earlier as a brilliant choice to nudge the Soviet Union towards free-market reforms, despite his lack of knowledge of the country, Strauss suddenly appeared to be the wrong man for the job.
At the same time, Bush at first reacted to the coup with characteristic caution, only criticizing “extra-constitutional” developments. But the President’s pronouncements soon became increasingly bold. And after summoning Strauss from a California vacation for a hasty swearing-in, Bush dispatched him to Moscow on what he called a “reporting” mission whose
value was clearly symbolic—instructing him not to legitimize the coup by presenting his credentials. In fact, by the time Strauss landed in Moscow, the coup was already unravelling and Bush’s condemnation of it had paid off. When Strauss finally presented his credentials to Gorbachev last Saturday, the Soviet leader pledged to “move quicker to a new economy, a new federation and a new political system.”
Despite the relief at that happy ending, most experts predict that the dark reminder of the Soviet Union’s volatility could delay congressional ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which Bush and Gorbachev signed in Moscow last month. “Right now, there’s a little nervousness,” said Peter Rodman of Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute in Washington. “I think the Congress will want to let the dust settle before it rushes to sign anything.” And some staunch conservatives pleaded with Bush to block the transfer of militarily relevant technology to the Soviet Union, scheduled to begin in September. Said Frank Gaffney, a former Pentagon official with Washington’s conservative Center for Security Policy: “This will permit a complete retooling of the Soviet military-industrial complex. It only makes them more dangerous.”
In fact, with the Soviet economy still in shambles, Bush’s aides began searching for new ways to hedge U.S. bets against further upheaval. But, buoyed by Bush’s call for “ speeding up Baltic independence, a delegation of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians demonstrated outside the White House in another warning of troubles ahead. Brandishing signs that said, “Bush! Bush! Get off your tush! Freedom now!” they served as a vivid reminder that his fate was in many ways inextricably bound to the events unfolding, for good or ill, half a world away.
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