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American Assessments of Bush’s Reaction to the Situation in the Soviet Union

August 19, 1991 at 12:00 AM EDT


JUDY WOODRUFF: When President Bush took office in 1989, he ordered a thorough review of the Reagan policy which had created a working partnership with Gorbachev. Once the review was completed, Mr. Bush adopted a policy which deepened that pattern of cooperation. Today after hearing the news of Mr. Gorbachev’s ouster, Mr. Bush met with reporters at the summer White House in Maine. He was asked what might have motivated the coup makers in Moscow.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Clearly, some of the hardliners have been concerned about the rapidity of reform. They’ve been concerned about the demise of the Communist Party per se, and it’s — I think they’ve also been concerned about the Soviet economy. But on a coup of this matter, you never know what’s going to happen. And I think Gorbachev was as surprised as anybody, obviously, and let’s just remain open on this as to whether it’s going to succeed or not. We’re seeing first, the first returns, you might say, coming in, but the people ‘s commitment to reform and democracy and openness is very profound, and I think, I think that it’s awful early to say that, that those changes are reversible. I’m inclined to believe that when people understand freedom and taste freedom and see democracy in action, that they’re not going to want to change.

REPORTER: Mr. President.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, Jerry. Jerry, right here.

REPORTER: Mr. President, are you going to stop the process of economic cooperation that’s been unfolding in recent months with the —

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think things will be on “hold.” If we’re going to set back democracy, set back reform, obviously, not only the United States but Europe will put things on hold as well. There’s a lot at stake in all of this and certainly I wouldn’t go forward with aid or assistance when you have this kind of extra-constitutional action taken by a handful of people backed up by the military there.

REPORTER: You say the economic aid was on hold. What about the START Treaty, will we hold back on that as well?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No. These treaties are in the interest of the United States clearly and they have said that all treaties will be abided by and that’s good. We don’t want to go back to the cold war days and we’re not going to do that. This is a very frustrating and — and unconstructive step, but we’re not going to go back to that. We’re not going to go back to seeing Europe as it used to be with Soviet forces into — all through Eastern Europe — and so we’re not trying to go back to Square One. What we’re trying to do is say, let the situation clear up, but adhere to certain fundamental principles.

REPORTER: Would your preferred course of action at this point be for a return of Gorbachev to power?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I’ve always felt that he represented the best opportunity to see reform go forward. He’s been in a bit of a balancing act, as we all know. One of the reasons we supported him, two reasons — one he was the President of the Soviet Union, and thus, we conducted our, our business as we should through the President, but secondly, he represented enormous productive and fantastic change, and I’ve — I think throwing him out in this manner is counterproductive, totally. I’m sure that the Western European leaders agree with that. So if he were there, obviously, I think the world would be sighing with relief now. And they understand, I think, more clearly why we have been trying to keep our foreign policy based on the fact that he offered the best hope, but we have other democratic forces there now and we want to give them the kind of support we can without being counterproductive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late this afternoon, the White House issued another statement. “Today’s events,” President Bush said, “have raised most serious questions about the future course of the Soviet Union.” The President said, “The illegitimate effort bypasses the will of the Soviet people.” The President also supported Russian Republic President Yeltsin’s call for the restoration of President Gorbachev.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We now turn to three American assessments. They come from Madeleine Albright, who served on the National Security Council staff under the Carter administration and is now President of the Center for National Policy, a public policy research group. Gen. William Odom was director of the National Security Agency, and is now director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute, and Rozanne Ridgway was assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and in that capacity participated in five U.S.-Soviet summit meetings. She is now president of the Atlantic Council. Rozanne Ridgway, do you agree with several of the Soviet analysts we just heard from that this was a poorly planned, poorly organized coup, and it’s not going to succeed?

MS. RIDGWAY: Well, starting at the back of that proposition, I do not think over the long run it’s going to succeed. Poorly planned, it seems to have been efficient enough to make the necessary change, and I do think perhaps in terms of its reasoning and the public presentation of it, they could have gone back to the drawing board. But it was effective, so I don’t think we get too far down the road if we just say it was poorly planned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you think — do you think it’ll stick? I mean, what’s your sense at this point?

MS. RIDGWAY: My sense is that when they get all done, even if they’re still holding power, they’re going to be facing the same problem that Gorbachev faced in 1985, a society and an economy that don’t work, and my view is these fellows don’t have the answers to it. We seem to have acted to preserve the union. It was perhaps the one issue that could bring together this disparate group of people. It’s not enough to hold them together and it’s a very perilous course. I think in time history will throw them out and we’ll get back on track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gen. Odom, you agree, it’s destined to fail?

GEN. ODOM: I think the jury’s out on that and I think it’ll be quite a while. I think one has to be clear about what fail and succeed really means. I think a coup that keeps these people in power a year or two could be called moderate success in setting back the reform and holding the Soviet Union together. Earlier, you heard some comments about how well prepared it was. Coups are never well prepared. They’re always messy things because they have to be done in a very conspiratorial manner. I think if you look back over the early part of this year, that the Soviet security forces have had a number of what turned out to be dry runs, such as Lithuania, and that they have followed up with tactics in the Baltics throughout in that regard, and if you look at some of the statements that were made, particularly I was surprised by one on 23 July of this year in which it was an outright call for movement —


GEN. ODOM: By I think it was about ten or twelve people signed it and three or four of those are members of this emergency committee today. They were essentially appealing to everyone to throw out these people who have brought six tragic years to the Soviet Union and who’ve swindled them and taken power and squandered it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Madeleine Albright, what do you think the prospects are?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that the coup will not last. I think the issue here is that Soviet Union is unraveling. What we’re seeing are very deep splits within the public and they’re unclear about what direction to go in. They treasure their democratization and glasnost. According to the Times Mirror Center Survey that we’ve just completed really shows that 60 percent plus people believe in multilateral, multiparty democracy and in pluralism. The problem is that they have been suffering through a period of mass disorientation and a sense that they’re obsessed by their economic problems, they’re very concerned about a deterioration in law and order, and public morality and when we asked them whether they preferred to have a democratic solution to their problems or a strong hand, what we found was that a very slim majority, 51 percent, wanted a democratic solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think that means? Does that mean people are going to rise up and stand in front of the tanks, get out of the way at the last minute, as we saw in the tape earlier?

MS. ALBRIGHT: I think that what might happen is the most politically active people are obviously the young people in Moscow, and I think those are the ones that Yeltsin is calling upon for the general strike, and I think that they will be there fighting.


GEN. ODOM: Let me make a couple of points in that regard. I said that the jury is out on this and I think it’ll be quite a while before we really understand how firmly in power these people are. The willingness of people to resist will be very much I think a function of the ability of Republican leaders and other group leaders who form these new organizations to get their groups into action and to communicate against one other. Now you can see the number of measures that have been taken to make that very very difficult. The second very important variable will be the reliability —

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’d be the tanks around the various republic —

GEN. ODOM: Right and take down television stations and make sure that no one can get out on the air. I found it very interesting and Vremya and Tass carried Yeltsin’s statement today. Now that is communication. And I think the Western radios will become an important vehicle for communicating among the various dissident groups if this thing becomes more of a civil war or a big resistance —

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean Western radios? You mean Voice of America —

GEN. ODOM: Radio Liberty, Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Kuella, a number of Western radios that broadcast to the Soviet Union and are widely listened to there, and then I wanted to make a point about another variable — that is how the Soviet military will behave. The lower ranks of the officer corps and the enlisted personnel are very disillusioned. Only 79 percent of the required draftees were — showed up this year. So that’s been somewhat of a disaster. The living conditions now become a matter of public concern so there’s great discontent within the military and I think the military senior leaders are very worried about that reliability. But in the last two years, special units and the MVD have been formed and will —


GEN. ODOM: The ministry of interior — Mr. Klugo’s organization. And I think a number of them will be reliable. If republics can coordinate their activities, then I don’t think there will be enough reliable troops to manage it even the fairly short run, but if they can’t, and if they’re disaggregated, then I think this limited number of desirable troops will be able to keep these people in power for some time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Rozanne Ridgway, a lot obviously depends on how the dissident groups communicate and can get their act together, and that must be very much on the minds of these men who are trying to pull this whole thing off.

MS. RIDGWAY: Well, I think they have to be uncertain, but there must have been some objectives that have become apparent. You try to put yourself in their position, representing, as Madeleine Albright says, another generation, an older agenda of people who we’ve known through all of these six years have not liked uncertainty, who have been concerned about the unpredictability of the marketplace and the impact on forces and law and order, they’ve all come together now and they’re saying to themselves, how do we, how do we hang onto this in order to do what, and I would say to preserve the union as they knew it and to provide for their people. That’s what governments, democratic or totalitarian, say that they’re trying to do. I don’t think they can do either one and I think that they will lose on both scores.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Madeleine Albright, is there anything the United States should have done, the West should have done, could have done, to stave this off, to keep this from happening?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that all along we could have been more engaged with what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think from 1989-90 on when, as you pointed out, President Bush started his policy review, and, in effect, I think wasted about 18 months of a very good legacy that was left by President Regan in terms of knowing how to deal on arms control agreements, and, in effect, engaging more with Gorbachev at a time that he was stronger and we might have had more leverage over him. I do think, however, that we have, as not so much the administration, but a series of American groups and private institutions, done a lot to deal with developing communication methods among the dissidents. I think this is something — we were talking about how they would get together. What has happened as a result of a lot of work by a variety of groups, people have learned to communicate at the intermediate level so that it is not the way it was in the bad old days when people were isolated from each other. They now know how to operate within kind of embryonic political organizations and they know how to communicate with each other. Also, in addition to the radios that Bill mentioned, there are lots of Westerners in there now. This is not a way to hermetically seal the society again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, President Bush said, himself, today that based on what Gorbachev told him, Gorbachev was pessimistic that something like this could work because he said once the people have a taste of democracy, they’re not going to be quick to — to give it up. So a lot depends on what the people want.

GEN. ODOM: Well, I don’t think we ought to look at that through ethnocentric American eyes. When people become very hungry, worried about how they’re going to eat tomorrow, or next week, when they are very concerned with law and order, and the dangers in the street, and when they fear for their personal existence, their enthusiasm for going out in mass demonstrations and participating in the defense of liberty weakens and their willingness to accept law and order, even if it’s a little rough and tumbled by this set of great characters may be more appealing. And I think that leadership, this coup leadership, is banking on that attitude. I think that — and let me connect this back to the point of our own policy toward them — by letting the nationality problem not become our central focus and letting this separation take a long evolutionary process, I think we’ve made the — given the reactionaries the chance they needed. Our experience in Eastern Europe —

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Bush administration has made a mistake —

GEN. ODOM: Well, I don’t think it’s just the Bush administration. I think the leadership, the democratic leadership in the Congress is across-the-board. Many spokesmen in the U.S. have been moderate. We don’t want to get in there —

JUDY WOODRUFF: Discouraging the —

GEN. ODOM: — and discourage this thing to break up. I was very struck — my visit to Moscow last fall — at the impression among some senior Soviet officials that everyone in the US really does not want to see the Soviet Union break up. Now if we conveyed that — and we must have — then I don’t think just the President’s responsible for that. That has given them confidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Have we sent the wrong signals, Rozanne Ridgway?

MS. RIDGWAY: Well, Bill’s an old friend so I think he’ll take it well if I say I think he’s dead wrong. I don’t think we’ve sent the wrong signals. I think we have walked a very, very difficult path, but I think we’ve walked it successfully, not to become embroiled in internal issues about which we know very little, except have, as Bill has suggested, some strong sort of ethnic impressions. We have expressed ourselves for freedom in democratic institutions and open societies and been very careful. This was found in many respects always to be one of the most unattractive, awful things that could happen. Gorbachev knew it, tried to proceed on consensus, angered people who said he didn’t go fast enough, angered people who said he went too slow, and eventually an issue came along such as perhaps the union agreement that got the right together for what I think historically over the decades of change in the Soviet Union will be seen as a brief moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, you want to make a point, and then – –

GEN. ODOM: Yes, I do. If this course had succeeded, we wouldn’t have the coup. The old policy has clearly not been effective in that regard. Now you might defend it and say that our influence is not that significant. We won’t be able to test the other policy — and by the other policy I don’t mean really beating the drums on the issue, but certainly realizing that self-determination is important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to get in the last couple of minutes that we have, Madeleine Albright, is there anything the United States or anyone in the West can do at this point to influence events in the Soviet Union?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it’s very important that we remember who we are and we ought to condemn the way that this has happened, and realize that we cannot deal with a government which sends tanks through the middle of its capital in order to terrify people, and I think that we have to make very clear that a continued U.S.- Soviet relationship depends on them dealing in a legal way and allowing Gorbachev to be restored.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’ve already said that they came to power outside the Soviet Constitution. Can we deal with these people at all?

MS. ALBRIGHT: I think we cannot at this stage. And what President Bush has said, quite properly, is that a lot of issues have to be on “hold,” and it puts us in a very tough position in terms of how far to move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, Rozanne Ridgway, the President also said he wants to move ahead with the START, with the Strategic Arms Treaty Ratification —

MS. RIDGWAY: And we have all said communication must be maintained and that should not exclude official communications telling this group what it’s going to take for them in the way of their behavior, restoring democratic means, getting on with reform, to be accepted in that global scene, which they require to prosper.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But do they really care — we only have a couple of seconds left — but at this point?

MS. RIDGWAY: Even if they’re going to be tough, I think the START agreement’s a good idea. If you’re going to go to deterrence, at least have the minimum number of nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is Congress ready to go ahead and ratify the START agreement under these circumstances?

MS. ALBRIGHT: Well, if they can be persuaded that it’s verifiable, and those people who negotiated believe it is, but I think what does need to be done is that the countries in Central and Eastern Europe which have benefited the most from Gorbachev, President Bush needs to assure the leaders of those countries that there will not be a roll back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Gorbachev, if he’s around to talk to anyone. Madeleine Albright, Gen. William Odom, Rozanne Ridgway, thank you all.