THIS week's summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev is taking place in an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion. The Bush administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to bolster Mr. Gorbachev and keep the summit meeting on track. This is in part due to the administration's belief that a summit makes President Bush look politically good at home; in part due to the fact that the administration has pinned its faith on Gorbachev and believes that he can best move along the cause of better US-Soviet relations.
But the reality is that Gorbachev is about the weakest summiteer the Soviet Union has ever dispatched in the history of summitry. He may be lauded in the meeting chambers and halls of Washington, and on the streets of Minneapolis and San Francisco, but at home there is rumbling and grumbling about his policies and an outpouring of criticism such as has not been evident in years.
With the threat of tripling bread prices July 1, and huge price increases on food and clothing later this year, crowds descended on Moscow stores this past weekend leaving their shelves barren. The price increases would be a consequence of Mr. Gorbachev's new economic plan which is drawing fire from all sides. Consumers are alarmed about the price increases, and workers about the prospects of unemployment in the reorganization. However there is also criticism from reformers who argue the plan does not go far enough; they fault the five-year transitional period proposed as taking far too long to dismantle central planning.
Meanwhile Mr. Gorbachev has faced a politically debilitating political challenge from his arch-critic Boris Yeltsin, who mounted a strong campaign to preside over the Soviet Union's largest republic, Russia. Mr. Yeltsin has advocated a far more adventurous course than Mr. Gorbachev has been prepared to follow, arguing for sweeping economic and political independence. For his heresy, he has faced Mr. Gorbachev's wrath but he has garnered substantial public support.
Also complicating Mr. Gorbachev's problems was the unresolved question of Lithuania, whose quest for independence remained unsettled in the face of a harsh economic boycott ordered by Mr. Gorbachev.
As the Bush administration has observed Mr. Gorbachev's mounting problems and his skidding popularity, it has nevertheless seemed willing to pay any price to shore him up and keep the summit alive.
While many congressmen have been angry over Mr. Gorbachev's rough handling of Lithuania, the Bush administration has made it clear that Lithuania was not to be allowed to derail the larger cause of improving US-Soviet relations. Thus we have witnessed American Secretary of State James Baker counseling Lithuania to suspend its declaration of independence. After clinching a new arms deal with the Soviets Mr. Baker also said: ``Too much is at stake to allow disputes over Lithuania to block US-Soviet progress.''
And as if all the body language were not clear enough, Mr. Baker sent another signal during his latest Moscow visit when he extended his visit with Mr. Gorbachev and kept Lithuania's Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene waiting for two hours.
The arms control agreements Mr. Baker forged in last-minute negotiations in Moscow have also come under fire from some critics who charge that the Soviets seized the advantage and the Americans gave too much away. In particular, the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty is faulted for being imprecise on verification. Another criticism leveled against the Bush administration is that in its enthusiasm for getting a START agreement in time for the summit, it did not do anything to roll back Soviet conventional forces in Europe, the tanks and divisions and attack planes that vastly outnumber NATO forces. President Bush himself has admitted he is troubled by this and said Moscow would be sending a ``bad signal'' by dragging its feet on troop withdrawals from Eastern Europe. He plans to tax Mr. Gorbachev on the issue at the summit.
So while it is probably worthwhile to deal with Gorbachev while he lasts, there are loose ends aplenty in the summit accords that Bush and Gorbachev will stitch together this week.