The 'Who Lost Russia' Debate

Just three little words, but what political dynamite: WHO LOST CHINA? And who knows that better than Richard Nixon? As a young member of Congress from California after World War II, Nixon launched a political career by smoking out "fellow travelers," including those who had allegedly let the Communists triumph in China. Last week the former president went on a new crusade, warning that tomorrow's zinger could well be, WHO LOST RUSSIA? In a series of carefully placed memoranda and editorials, Nixon accused George Bush of a "penny-ante" approach to aiding the former Soviet Union. "In light of the stakes, the West must do everything it can to help [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin to succeed," Nixon wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "If Mr. Yeltsin fails, the prospects for the next 50 years will turn grim."

The question of who lost China is, of course, specious. China was never America's to lose. And by the end, Chiang Kaishek's government didn't have enough popular backing to make it worth U.S. support. If Boris Yeltsin is ousted by an expansionist military regime--an alarming but not imminent prospect--the question of who lost Russia will be hollow, too. No amount of Western money can prop him up if he isn't strong enough to survive on his own. The Russian economy is so chaotic that just getting aid into the right hands is a monumental task. How can we save Russia if Russia cannot save itself?

As the Republican Party's gray eminence on foreign policy, Nixon surely realizes this. His real message has to do with domestic policy: don't let Pat Buchanan spook you. The Republican challenger is scoring big in the primaries with his isolationist "America First" theme, while Bush seems more and more reluctant even to mention the dirty words, foreign policy. He's abandoned the one issue where he could claim to have demonstrated superiority over any Democratic candidate. Nixon, like Bush, is a foreign-policy maven by nature; his attack on Bush fell into the category of a friendly warning.

Some of the president's men seem glad to hear that message. While his campaign team doesn't want to give Buchanan fresh ammunition, other Bush aides wish the president would put his clout behind aid to Russia. " Nixon's attack may have the beneficial effect of persuading the campaign people that they've overdone it," said one senior State Department official. The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Robert Strauss, is clearly frustrated. "I don't know that the debate will change during this presidential election cycle, but I hope it does," he said at a reporters' breakfast. "I don't think we have the luxury of continuing to wait."

Figuring out how to aid Russia will take hard work. Some Nixon proposals are more easily accomplished--such as a "free-enterprise corps" of American executives who would train Russians in capitalist economics. Others, such as a multibillion-dollar fund to make the ruble convertible, will require months of work. As the Russian winter draws to a close, Cassandra-like predictions of famine are proving unfounded. Of course, next year's harvest could be an even bigger disaster. But by November, America will have elected a new president. Maybe then the government can work out a program for Russia based on common sense, not three little words.