WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bush, in an Oval Office interview this week with a small group of newspaper reporters, described his views on the receding threat to NATO from the Warsaw Pact and flatly denied reports that he was ready for deeper 1991 defense budget cuts. The military threat to NATO from the Warsaw Pact will never return to its full cold-war level, he said, but risks remain.
His comments seemed to split the difference in a debate between members of his administration over the possibility of a reversal in the East bloc. The debate is a crucial one for the future of United States defense spending.
``I'm convinced that, certainly for the foreseeable future, some of the change we've seen taking place is not going to be overturned by events,'' he said. ``Poland is not going to go back to being a captive nation, if you will. But that doesn't mean there's not some pitfalls out there.''
Although Mr. Bush acknowledged that the military threat will ``never go back to Square 1 in terms of Eastern Europe,'' he also left open the possibility for reversals in individual countries - not least the Soviet Union.
``I can't vouch for what every country is going to do in there, including the Soviet Union.... It's very hard when you're measuring ... intentions of individual parties to have the intelligence [reports] so solid and so strong that things can never be reversed.''
Reform prospects in the Soviet Union and a corresponding demilitarization are at the nub of the differences between Director of Central Intelligence William Webster and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney.
The differences are matters of degree. Mr. Webster believes that the less threatening military posture of the Soviet Union is becoming increasingly difficult to reverse. Mr. Cheney is more skeptical.
Bush praised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's managing of peaceful change throughout Eastern Europe: ``He really removed from the table the concept of using military force.''
The backdrop of the president's remarks was a tense negotiation between Lithuanian leaders seeking independence and Mr. Gorbachev trying to slow their momentum. Soviet troops conducted maneuvers in the region over the weekend, which some Lithuanians took as intimidation.
``One of the reasons I have not only supported perestroika [restructuring] but also supported Gorbachev by name is that he is steadfastly adhering to the concept of peaceful change. That is very important.''
A news report last weekend that the administration was ready to cut over $7 billion more from the 1991 defense budget than Bush proposed in January ``did not get it right,'' he said.
As for Soviet troops, Bush saw little to favor them staying in East Germany, despite the calls of some Polish leaders for the Soviets to retain a presence as a hedge against a united Germany.
``I don't think the Soviets are wanted on the Eastern side. I've heard what the Poles have said, but I haven't heard that motion seconded by many Poles. And it is my view that, as I look across that array of countries, I don't see any sentiment for keeping Soviet troops there.''
Yet even in the East, Bush said, some sentiment exists for keeping US troops in Germany. Of West Germany, he added: ``If US troops aren't wanted, US troops will not remain.''
As for other instabilities and historic rivalries emerging once again in Europe, Bush is optimistic: ``I am convinced that as the new democracies emerge, there will be a newfound commitment on the part of governments in Eastern Europe to human rights, and that in itself will help peacefully resolve these questions.''