&TC; President Bush is finding it hard to resist a well-orchestrated campaign for Western assistance to save the Soviet economy. The man with the baton, not surprisingly, is Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose efforts to insinuate himself into the London economic summit next month is merely one facet of a broader action plan to keep the Soviet Union from unraveling and himself from losing power.
Despite serious misgivings among top administration officials, who question Mr. Gorbachev's ability to control the situation or convert the centralized command structure into a free market system, Mr. Bush now describes himself as "feeling more positive on a wide array of specific questions." His upbeat mood followed yesterday's meeting with Yevgeny Primakov, a ranking aide in the Kremlin, whose earlier presentations failed to impress Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Mr. Primakov, incidentally, is co-author of a public letter to the seven industrial democracies due to meet in London. Emphasizing how huge are the stakes in the Soviet dilemma, Mr. Primakov wrote: "It must be obvious that the absence of such a powerful state as the Soviet Union on the Euro-Asian continent could give rise to a number of most dangerous geopolitical problems. It may unleash multiple conflicts which are predetermined by a concentration of centuries-old ethnic and religious tensions. The problem will be aggravated by a natural (under the circumstances) reduction of control over one of the world's largest nuclear potentials. All of this may cost the world considerable more than support for reform in the U.S.S.R."
We quoted that broadside, with its implicit threat of nuclear crisis, because it helps explain why Germany and France, among others, are now so eager to have Mr. Gorbachev come to London to present his case for vastly increased Western assistance. Placed on the same continent with the Soviet Union, the continental powers feel an urgency that is not fully shared either across the English Channel or across the Atlantic Ocean.
Any U.S. aid must, of course, be tied not only to real Soviet reforms but to reduced Soviet military spending, an end to harassment of the Baltic republics, curtailed aid to Cuba, accommodation on arms control and cooperation in dealing with regional conflicts. If these moves are forthcoming, Mr. Bush should seize this opportunity to encourage the growth of a free market democracy in the Soviet Union. His list of goodwill gestures need not be costly -- $1.5 billion in agricultural credits, renewal of present trading arrangements and his assent to a London invitation for Mr. Gorbachev.