Say what you will about George Bush, he tries to get things right the second time. In July 1990, Saddam Hussein was an American ally, but before summer faded, Bush had declared Saddam a wanton aggressor comparable to Hitler and was mobilizing for war in the Persian Gulf. When Panamanian military officers bravely launched an insurrection against Manuel Noriega, Bush pointedly declined to intervene in what he dubbed another country's domestic affairs. A few weeks after the insurrection was put down and its leaders ruthlessly executed, American troops made Panama their own. And when the abortive Soviet three-day coup commenced, Bush cautiously suggested that there might be room to do business with the Kremlin's new occupants. Several hours later, he firmly condemned the coup plotters.
Whatever one may think of Panama and the Gulf, in the most recent case Bush ended up squarely on the side of the angels. And with Mikhail Gorbachev now (more or less) restored to power, Bush basks in the glow of yet another foreign policy triumph. The American public cheers, and another half-dozen would-be Democratic presidential candidates slink to the political sidelines. But before memories of yesterday's headlines grow dim we ought to ask ourselves: Are the plaudits truly justified?
The president made very clear what he found objectionable about the putsch of the Eight Who Couldn't Shoot Straight. Over and over in his public statements more than a dozen times by my count—Bush castigated the usurpation as "unconstitutional." These are words to gladden the heart of an international lawyer, but should the rest of us be similarly soothed by President Bush's concerns for the niceties of Soviet constitutional rule? In a word, no.
The president's remarks were both too strong and too weak, and their further implications for the orientation of this administration's foreign policy are profoundly troubling.
The condemnation was too weak because it largely skirted the real harm that the coup plotters intended. The Gorbachev years have been graced by a partial dismantling of one of the most brutally efficient tyrannies the world has seen. Bit by bit, Soviet citizens and their captive satellite neighbors have been liberated from a 70-year heritage of everyday terrorism exercised by a cadre of party controllers.
This perestroika policy, by no means completed, was what the plotters meant to reverse. No one could have doubted their design. It was eloquently spotlighted by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and by the tens of thousands of ordinary Russian citizens who took to the streets to protest the coup. Having tasted liberty, they were loathe to surrender it back to apparatchik goons. Whether the re-enslavement was to proceed by constitutional or extraconstitutional means was entirely peripheral to them—as it should be to us.
Bush had a splendid opportunity to affirm that this country's Soviet policy is directed by a concern that the blessings of liberty be extended to those who have for so long gone without. Instead, he resorted to invocations of a constitution the provisions of which not one American in a thousand can identify nor has reason to respect.
The president's statement was too strong in according undue legitimacy to what remained a pervasively corrupt charter. Given the maelstrom of change in the Soviet Union during the past six years, all talk about its constitutional structure is an inexact attempt to focus on a target moving at dizzying speed. But to the extent we can identify a genuine Soviet constitution, its contours at the time of the coup were, despite revisions, recognizably those of Stalin's 1936 document.
Among its central provisions was a guarantee to the Communist Party of a "leading role" in the direction of the state. Who, then, was the more faithful defender of this proviso: Gorbachev or the hardliners? For one who, like Bush, has declared himself a "strict constructionist," the answer is embarrassing.
And nothing could be in more flagrant violation of the Soviet constitution than Yeltsin's post-coup decree seizing party assets and expelling its functionaries from factories, the media, and other strategic heights. What separates Yeltsin from the coup plotters is no more—and no less—than the difference between attempts to extend liberty and attempts to roll it back. None of this can be expressed by a reverence for constitutionalism.
One might object on the president's behalf that too literal an interpretation is being foisted on his words. Diplomacy necessarily takes refuge in legalism and sophistries. Presidents must play to a gallery of pinstriped plenipotentiaries for whom plain speaking is anathema; thus the use of constitutional doublespeak. And besides, isn't the real point not what he said but that, when the chips were down, he backed the good guys.
I have no wish to discount the indispensability of hypocrisy to the conduct of diplomatic hocus pocus. If Bush was merely dissembling in the cause of a greater good, he has simply earned his Gallup scores. Alas, the chief problem with the president's words is that they might ring all too true.
Until forced by recent events to express support for—and eventually to recognize—the Baltic states' independence, Bush had shown himself extraordinarily reluctant to back their separation from the Soviet Union. That reluctance is entirely consonant with sympathy for convoluted Soviet constitutional provisions rendering succession, at best, a torturous five-year process, and at worst, impossible.
Similarly, the president's criticisms of the butchers of Tiananmen Square have been exquisitely muted. Thousands were massacred, and another billion persons set back in their aspiration for lives of minimal decency, but Bush persists in his determination to extend most-favored-nation status to totalitarian China. Why? No doubt dozens of realpolitik considerations could be cited. But let us note also that the gerontocracy that gave us the order to fire is the same body that has oppressed the country for 40 years. Its constitutional credentials are, therefore, impeccable.
At bottom, the president's encomium to constitutionalism is misdirected because it confuses form with substance, principle with persiflage, liberty with legality. The value of constitutional governance is instrumental, not intrinsic. If a country's fundamental law embodies respect for freedom of its citizens, provides reasonably efficient and democratic procedures for transacting public business, supports equality under the law, and affords protection against encroachments by potential oppressors, then it merits, support, otherwise it does not.
A functional constitution—not, as the experience of scores of Third World regimes amply attests, to be equated with some document in a glass case—secures a political and economic order within which individuals can orient themselves. It shields basic principles from the shifting gusts of current opinion. But insofar as the Soviet Union can be said to have had a constitution, it was one rigidly grounded on the principles of Marxism and Leninism. And the order that it imposed was that of the Gulag.
The Gorbachev years have been an exercise—sometimes full-throttle, sometimes half-hearted, sometimes thrust into reverse—of constitution dismantlement. That is a process to be encouraged, and if Gorbachev lacks the mettle to bring it to a fitting culmination, we should hope that he will be supplanted by a more stalwart successor. The United States has no interest as such in seeing Gorbachev comfortably fill out the remaining years of his term in office.
To offer at this point unqualified support for constitutionalism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe is fundamentally to misconstrue the imperatives of that region's politics. No revolution can be conducted under the provisions of a constitution, and it is precisely a revolution that has engulfed the erstwhile Soviet Empire. From the rise of Solidarity to the fall of the Berlin Wall, old constitutions have been shredded. More of the same is needed if the Baltic peoples, Ukrainians, and ordinary Russian peasants who aspire simply to own the lands on which they labor are to enjoy freedom.
Some coups threaten liberty and others—such as the one that toppled Romania's Ceausescu—advance it. Let us hope that we have a president cognizant of that difference, and let us hope further that he someday comes to speak as forthrightly in defense of liberty as he does of an arid constitutionalism.
Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky is professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (Oxford Free Press).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Soviet Union: Coups and Constitutions".