Washington.-- Over the long term, the United States desires the death of the Soviet empire, its strategic obsession for nearly five decades.
But in the short term, the United States is helping to keep the patient on life support.
With its solicitude for Mikhail Gorbachev, its wish to see the Soviet nuclear arsenal under central control and its stress on orderly transformation, the Bush administration is almost unabashedly working to restrain the potentially disruptive forces that could remove the Soviet threat permanently.
The reason is a mixture of security worries, fear of instability, convenience, the political calendar and suspicion of still-unknown quantities among the republics' leaders.
The top responsibility of any American government is to prevent the chance of nuclear annihilation. Hence Secretary of State James A. Baker's admonition to the Soviets to keep their nuclear weapons under a central command.
Better to have the thousands of warheads aimed at the West in seasoned, steady hands, it is argued, than to see the responsibility shared -- even by republican leaders eager for far more sweeping cuts in nuclear forces than heretofore contemplated.
The instability tearing at the union raises the specter of an oppression of minorities equal to or worse than the trampling of ++ rights under communism. The United States wants to see ethnic and nationalist rivalries kept in check by an orderly democratic process that respects international human rights guidelines.
Key Bush administration officials have been fairly open about their preference for dealing with Mr. Gorbachev over Boris Yeltsin, foremost of the republic leaders.
Even in his indecisiveness, resistance to change and blind trust in status-quo apparatchiks, the Soviet president is predictable. When push comes to shove, after stalling and hesitating, he usually makes decisions the United States wants.
This was true on German unification, conventional and long-range arms control, the Persian Gulf war, the death of the Communist Party and, most recently, Baltic independence.
Mr. Yeltsin is seen as demagogic, with anti-democratic tendencies. He is also unpredictable -- heroically so when he faced down the coup-plotters, but overstepping his power when he made a grab for the central banking structure.
And dealing with a central government is far less cumbersome and messy than dealing with 15 republics.
It is also convenient to enlist the Soviets as a partner in achieving U.S. policy goals in various parts of the globe.
This has worked in the Gulf, Africa and Central America and may work in Southeast Asia.
Now the Bush administration has a huge stake in making it work in the Middle East, where Soviet co-sponsorship of talks has helped push Syria toward negotiations.
Finally, the White House is driven by a four-year election cycle.
It needs to make substantial progress on a Middle East settlement and begin to implement Strategic Arms Reduction (START) and Conventional Forces in Europe treaties before the 1992 election season.
All these reasons argue against switching horses and, say, steering all aid and technical assistance toward the republics.
On the other hand, it's in the republics where the kind of changes the United States wants to see are occurring: free elections, dismantling of state structures, freewheeling moves toward a market economy and a desire to get rid of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Gorbachev is no longer standing against the inexorable tide. But neither is he propelling change the way others might. The result of support for Mr. Gorbachev is a prolonged, though maybe less violent, upheaval.
Chief among the changes being slowed is economic reform, something Bush administration officials despair of Mr. Gorbachev's coming to grips with.
Some Western economists are starting to say that collapse of the centralized command economy won't be all that painful. Barter is already practiced among republics.
Russia's leaders, by contrast with Mr. Gorbachev, seem hell-bent on fostering unfettered capitalism and emptying the ministries that have planned and controlled production.
And the interim power-sharing arrangement Mr. Gorbachev rammed through the Soviet Congress last week keeps the military and foreign policy in the hands of the center. This could stall dismantling of the vast Soviet military establishment and a shift away from such foreign-policy totems as aid to Cuba.
A possible tension between the American short-term and
long-term goals in policy toward the Soviet Union is not ignored by the Bush administration. But officials insist they are a long way from having to confront a choice of whether to turn away from the center.
For now, at least, Mr. Gorbachev's actions and U.S. interests coincide.
One administration official, not in total agreement with higher-ups, contrasts the administration attitude toward Mr. Yeltsin with its all-out support for another reformer, Lech Walesa in Poland.
The Russian's faults in some ways pale in comparison with the Pole's, he said. The difference was that from the start, Walesa was "our S.O.B."
Mark Matthews is The Sun's diplomatic correspondent.