PRESIDENT Bush's one-day get-together this Sunday with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a low-risk venture with maximum public-relations potential. Bush administration officials have been delighted over the Kremlin's support for the United States-led drive against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In the UN Security Council, the Soviets have voted with the US in five resolutions against Iraq, including one allowing military enforcement of the economic blockade. Moscow has also cut its arms shipments to Iraq.
But even if this weekend's spur-of-the-moment meeting in Helsinki produces little more than a photo opportunity and another joint superpower statement against Iraq's actions, that in and of itself will show something to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
``The Iraqis spent a lot of time getting the superpowers lined up with them'' during their war with Iran, says a Middle East expert at the State Department. ``So the sight of Bush and Gorbachev working together against them will mean all the more.''
The meeting, say US officials and other informed observers, is also intended to ensure that the US and Soviets maintain their cooperation, the backbone of the international consensus against Iraq. Bush expects a briefing from Gorbachev on his discussion with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, who made a pre-summit trip to Moscow Wednesday that was initiated by the Iraqis. US officials, however, stress that any mediation role Moscow might be able to play - given its close ties with Iraq - would not be between the US and Iraq, but between Iraq and the world community.
On Capitol Hill, congressmen are looking to the administration's stated intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the Persian Gulf, and wondering how this will fit into the new superpower dynamic.
``We're going to have some tough times ahead of us,'' Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana told reporters Wednesday on his return from the Gulf region.
``There have to be channels of decisionmaking, and this [summit meeting] is a very good conversation as to what the Soviets find tolerable and what we may need to ask them to do. For example, if we're attacked, if we have hostages that are attacked in Iraq and we respond, are the Soviets going to back us?
One point of contention that remains between the US and Soviet Union on Iraq is the continued presence of at least 193 Soviet military advisers in Iraq. In questioning on Capitol Hill both Tuesday and Wednesday, Secretary of State James Baker III fielded complaints from congressmen that the Soviets appeared to be ``having it both ways'' with Iraq, lining up publicly with the global consensus against Saddam Hussein while playing a supporting role inside that country.
Secretary Baker said he had asked the Soviets, in his frequent discussions with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, to remove the advisers. The Soviet response is that the advisers ``will remain until their contracts expire.'' Baker will seek clarification on the matter in Helsinki.
Mark Katz, a specialist on Soviet policy in the Middle East at George Mason University, says that if the Soviets announced the advisers were being withdrawn, ``the assumption is they would be interned'' by the Iraqis. He rejects suggestions that the advisers, who work as trainers and technicians on the Soviet-made materiel Iraq relies on, played an active part in the invasion of Kuwait.
Mr. Katz also agrees with US officials who say they believe the Soviets did not know in advance that Iraq intended to invade Kuwait, despite the presence of 1,000 military advisers in Iraq before the invasion. Likewise, he does not think the continued presence of Soviets in Iraq would be that useful as a source of intelligence on the thinking inside the Iraqi government that the Soviets could share with the US.
``Saddam's regime is very tightly controlled,'' says Katz. ``The Soviets don't have access to policymaking people.''
However, one thing Bush could ask the Soviet government to do, Katz continues, is to speak ``in one voice'' about the international efforts against Iraq. Some Soviet conservatives have been criticizing the US military buildup in Saudi Arabia, though in recent days Soviet officials have been weighing in with a defense of the US action.
In Helsinki, Bush can also ask Gorbachev to help tighten the economic sanctions against Iraq by pressuring its friends, such as Libya and Yemen, Katz suggests.
Though this Sunday's mini-summit will focus largely on events in the Gulf, other issues will come up in the agenda-less meeting. The talks on conventional forces in Europe will be raised, says presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, in an effort to give them a boost. The agreement must be ready before a summit of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, tentatively scheduled for the end of this year, can be held.
The two leaders will also discuss the Soviet Union's rapidly unraveling economy and the latest plan for reform. In point of fact, Gorbachev is getting a financial windfall in much-needed hard currency from the Gulf crisis; for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the Soviet Union gets an additional $1 billion annually for its oil exports.
But Gorbachev's desire to be a team player in the world community - keeping him in the good graces of the Western financial powerhouses that can aid and advise his country - clearly outweighs any net financial gain Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has given the Soviet Union.