`IF you were King,'' Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was asked the other morning, ``how would you have dealt with China in recent days?'' Mr. Cheney smiled. ``Just the way President Bush has dealt with that situation,'' he said. ``Cautiously, very cautiously.'' Not long ago the then-congressman from Wyoming, Dick Cheney, had met with this same group of journalists in what could have been a relaxed college seminar.
Now it was different. Secretary Cheney was being cautious. He'd been burned soon after becoming defense secretary. He'd forgotten he was no longer a congressman who could speak freely.
Of Mikhail Gorbachev he had said: ``I would guess that he would ultimately fail; that is to say, that he will not be able to reform the Soviet economy. And when that happens, he's likely to be replaced by someone who will be far more hostile.''
Those words weren't happily received in Moscow - nor by the President. Mr. Bush later ``made it clear'' to Mr. Gorbachev ``that we want to see perestroika succeed.''
Some weeks had gone by since that incident. But reporters still wondered what the new defense secretary really felt about the Soviets. As one said: ``For us to know why you want to keep some weapons and do away with others, we need your world view - how hostile you find the world of today and how diminished the Soviet threat may be.''
``I don't think there is any question,'' Cheney said, ``but what we may - and I emphasize `may' - be on the verge of a fundamental shift or change if you will in US-Soviet relations. I would think it would be fair to say that the likelihood of war between the US and the Soviet Union is probably as low as it has been in the post-World War II period - that Gorbachev does seem to be serious about trying to change the system.... There is clearly a lot of evidence on the table that we are dealing with a less hostile and less threatening Soviet Union.''
Had Cheney backed away from his darker estimate? Somewhat. But he added: ``You have to qualify all that - especially if it is your mission to worry about the security of the United States.'' He noted, for example, that Soviet weapons production rates haven't changed much.
``So while it is appropriate to aggressively engage the Soviets at this time to see if in fact we can reduce the overall level of threat, we have to remember there is a lot we don't know about how developments will take place in the Soviet Union,'' he added.
Cheney referred to ``what is going to happen in Eastern Europe, whether or not the changes we now see in Soviet behavior become a fundamental shift in the Soviet Union or whether it is a temporary aberration tied to the rule of one man.''
Someone asked if he were ``less concerned about Gorbachev soon leaving the scene than you were a few weeks ago?''
He cited his conversations with opinion leaders who earlier had focused on Gorbachev's role in changes coming to pass in Soviet Russia and who now are stressing the historic inevitability that was bringing about these changes. ``I think the answer is somewhere in-between,'' he parried.
About an end to the cold war he said: ``I don't think we know yet. It is far too soon to make those kind of judgments.''
Cheney went on: ``The cold war in part stems from Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the division of Eastern Europe, the major Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, the lack of freedom and independence and self-determination of the peoples [there]. That hasn't changed.
``There is ferment there. Elections in Poland. I see the Hungarians this week honored the leaders of the revolution of 1956. But Europe is still divided. The Berlin wall is still up.''
Before the breakfast, I asked if he is ``the same old Dick Cheney.'' He laughed. Yes, ``you can't take Wyoming out of the boy.''
Well, partly. He's still country friendly. But there's a ``new'' Richard Cheney. The defense chief is learning that when he speaks, the President, Moscow, and the world may be listening.