The patrician Bush would not say so, either publicly or privately, but Reagan had left behind a messy inheritance. The massive federal budget deficits that resulted from Reaganomics compelled the new president to do more with less. Concern over the federal deficit reverberated throughout the 1988 presidential campaign. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” Bush asserted at the Republican Convention. Yet promotion of liberty in Eastern Europe surely bore a hefty price tag. “A political solution in Poland cannot endure without economic assistance from the West,” read a proposal by financier George Soros that wound up on the desk of Condoleezza Rice. “Indeed, both sides are entering into a social contract in the firm expectation of such assistance.” Emotions were running high in Poland, Bush acknowledged to Helmut Kohl on June 23,1989, but it was “important to act carefully and to avoid pouring money down a rat-hole.”
Reagan also bequeathed to Bush a vision of the world that the latter did not regard as secure. Bush believed—as did Scowcroft and every other adviser surrounding him in 1989—that nuclear weapons served as an indispensable deterrent and should not be abolished. So long as the Red Army loomed over Central and Western Europe, these weapons protected the peace. Bush did not oppose strategic arms reductions, but he wanted to proceed carefully. He did not wish to antagonize the Navy, which balked at proposed inspections of submarines as part of a START agreement. And he knew that conservatives would insist that any arms deal be accompanied by unrestricted research on SDI. Although he supported missile defense, Bush was skeptical. He did not see how it could replace the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, and he was not certain that the government had the resources to afford the technological research and development.
The president’s position on nuclear weapons accordingly drew criticism from the Kremlin. Gorbachev saw it as a reproach to the spirit of Reykjavik. Simply by stepping away from a vision of nuclear abolition, Bush was bound to disappoint the Soviet leader. Whatever else the president could have done in the first few months in office, it probably would not have changed Moscow's basic sense of aggravation at the loss of the understanding and momentum achieved with the Reagan administration.
A former head of the CIA, Bush appreciated that American intelligence services could not decide quite what to make of Gorbachev. “Some analysts see current policy changes as largely tactical, driven by the need for breathing space from the competition,” read a National Intelligence Estimate titled “Soviet Policy Toward the West: The Gorbachev Challenge.” Adherents to this view “believe the ideological imperatives of Marxism-Leninism and its hostility toward capitalist countries are enduring. They point to previous failures of reform and the transient nature of past ‘détentes.’ They judge that there is a serious risk of Moscow returning to traditionally combative behavior when the hoped for gains in economic performance are achieved.” The same National Intelligence Estimate went on to say, “Other analysts believe Gorbachev’s policies reflect a fundamental rethinking of national interests and ideology as well as more tactical considerations. They argue that ideological tenets of Marxism-Leninism such as class conflict and capitalist-socialist enmity are being revised. They consider the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the shift toward tolerance of power sharing in Eastern Europe to be historic shifts in the Soviet definition of national interest. They judge that Gorbachev's changes are likely to have sufficient momentum to produce lasting shifts in Soviet behavior.”
For all the billions of dollars poured into U.S. intelligence services, in other words, their assessment of Soviet behavior provided no resolution for policy choices. Even the most optimistic assessment went only so far as “lasting shifts in Soviet behavior” as a prospective goal. The mixed messages reinforced Bush’s inclination to be cautious. Members of his administration did not consider radical nuclear arms reductions desirable, could not achieve consensus that Gorbachev meant the things he said, and could not guarantee that a reformed and strengthened Soviet Union would not rekindle Cold War tensions. “As the Cold War was ending in 1989,” recalls Robert Zoellick, perhaps Secretary of State James Baker’s closest adviser during this period, “U.S. officials were at a great disadvantage compared to subsequent scholars: we could not be sure that the Cold War was in fact ending!”
Nor did they sense that the administration was negotiating from a position of political strength. Unlike Reagan's first administration, Bush faced a Senate filled with Democrats and a House of Representatives shorn of many of the “boll weevil” Democrats who had supported Reagan’s arms buildup and tax cuts. Those who remained were particularly bitter over the nasty campaign Bush had conducted in the 1988 presidential election. It had been a far cry from “Morning in America” four years earlier, a contest in which candidate Bush had acted rather unlike Vice President Bush.
The president’s team recognized political reality. “Protocol and prudence had dictated that I consult with members of my own party first,” Baker later wrote of his efforts to craft a new policy toward Nicaragua. “But as a practical matter, I understood that the support of the Democrats who were the majority was more critical.” So did the seasoned observers of American politics who traveled to Moscow in the first months of the administration. They told Gorbachev's aides that the new president did not enjoy the same popularity as Reagan and did not possess an abundance of political capital. “He has a delicate position with Congress,” West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Alexander Yakovlev in January. The new president's “position is very difficult,” Senator Edward Kennedy’s aide Larry Horowitz told Vadim Zagladin later that year. “He would like to make progress in arms control,” but his own base was unhappy with his domestic legislation and his change in policy toward Central America. If anything, Horowitz went on to say, the Democrats in Congress were acting “as his real allies.”
Democrats were not Bush's allies, however. As if to flex their political muscles, Senate Democrats voted down Bush's nominee for secretary of defense, John Tower, notwithstanding his four terms in that same body. Bush’s second choice, Richard Cheney, surmised of Gorbachev on NBC’s Meet the Press: “If I had to guess today, I would guess he ultimately would fail. That is to say, he will not be able to reform the Soviet economy to turn it into an efficient modern society.” The administration swiftly distanced itself from Cheney. But the original comments and subsequent denials fueled suspicions that the Bush administration wanted Gorbachev to “stew in his own juices.” From Moscow, Ambassador Jack Matlock again attempted to nudge a president toward negotiating with the Soviets. “The four-part agenda which we have successfully pursued over the past six years... has been successful in the sense that it has finally produced significant Soviet positive movement” in bilateral relations, regional problems, arms reductions, and human rights, he wrote in one of three cables that February. “It has not yet exhausted its full potential, however, since much remains to be done in all four areas.”
Matlock tailored his message to the so-called realists in the new administration. “We of course have many specific interests which we must pursue,” he went on to say, “but no long-term goals are more important than the transformation of the Soviet political system into one with effective structural constraints on the use of military force outside Soviet borders, along with the evolution of the Soviet military machine into one suitable primarily for defensive purposes.” Many doubted whether, absent a “total collapse of the system,” this would ever occur. Perhaps collapse might happen someday in the future, Matlock acknowledged; in the near term, “for the first time in at least sixty years,” political reformation and military restraint were “consistent with avowed Soviet aspirations.” The administration “would be remiss if we did not reinforce incentives for Soviet movement in this direction.”
Bush’s advisers detected in Matlock's cable the language of Reaganism. They wanted more specificity. As Bush and Scowcroft waited for the results of the strategic review, they pondered alternatives to the ambitious dream of a world without nuclear weapons. In March, Scowcroft considered a public declaration to call on both the Soviets and the United States to withdraw all conventional forces from Europe. Blackwill talked his boss out of this proposal, which he feared might undercut America's commitment to its European allies. Blackwill wanted to focus on Germany instead. “Today, the top priority for American foreign policy in Europe should be the fate of the Federal Republic of Germany,” began a memo he and Philip Zelikow crafted for Scowcroft on March 20, 1989. Within a year, Kohl faced reelection—a contest many expected him to lose. The prospect of the SPD's return to power jeopardized U.S. plans to modernize its Lance short-range tactical nuclear missile and, more broadly, the cohesion of NATO amidst Gorbymania on the streets of Western Europe. Scowcroft contributed to Blackwill and Zelikow’s memo by linking Kohl's reelection to a “vision of Europe's future” that included “an approach to the ‘German question.’” He advised the president to “send a clear signal to the Germans that we are ready to do more if the political climate allows.” These ideas intrigued the president, who apparently wrote back to Scowcroft that he had read it “with interest!”