George Bush photo

The President's News Conference in Kennebunkport, Maine

September 02, 1991

The President. Nearly 2 weeks ago, the world watched with fascination the courage of the Soviet people in foiling a cynical coup, a coup that, thank God, failed. We've marveled since at their efforts to build a new and democratic future. Major changes are now taking place in the Soviet Union, not the least of which is the establishment of new arrangements between the Republics and the central government.

While we await the final outcome, I welcome President Gorbachev's support for the concept that the Republics will be free to determine their own future. This new "ten-plus-one" agreement speaks eloquently to that. This is a watershed in Soviet political thinking, equal to the dramatic movements toward democracy and market economies that we are witnessing in the Republics themselves. The United States strongly supports these efforts.

The Baltic peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their democratically elected governments have declared their independence and are moving now to control their own national territories and their own destinies. The United States has always supported the independence of the Baltic States and is now prepared immediately to establish diplomatic relations with their governments. The United States is also prepared to do whatever it can to assist in the completion of the current process of making Baltic independence a factual reality. To facilitate this, I will be sending the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Kamman, to the Baltics.

We also understand the enormous challenges that lie ahead for the Soviet people in meeting their own food and energy needs particularly and beginning true economic reform. Therefore, I'm sending Under Secretary of Agriculture Crowder with an experts' mission to survey with Soviet and Republic officials their critical food requirements for the coming winter, particularly in those Republics that are likely to be in the greatest need.

And in a month, a Presidential mission, led by Secretary of Agriculture Ed Madigan, will bring a delegation of senior private sector and Government officials to the U.S.S.R. to seek solutions to a winter food problem if we determine that one exists, and to continue our long-term efforts to help the Soviet Union and the Soviet people resolve problems in food distribution.

I've also asked Secretary of State Jim Baker and our AID Administrator, Mr. Roskens, to work with Project HOPE to augment and extend my Presidential initiative on medical assistance to the U.S.S.R. through the end of 1992.

We intend to work closely with Soviet and Republic officials in both of these efforts. This morning I talked to the President of Estonia and of Latvia, as I did to Mr. Landsbergis of Lithuania a couple of days ago, to tell him of this official position now being taken by the United States of America.

Now, I'll be glad to take just a few questions. Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press].

Q. Mr. President, what does today's action signify to the independence movements of the other Republics? Does it offer the guarantee that when they declare their independence that the United States will also recognize them?

The President. What we'll do is look at each case on a case-by-case basis. But I think more important than what we might do down the road is what apparently is happening there in agreement between the center and the Republics, and that is that each shall determine its own future.

The Baltics, of course, are quite different. We never, as you know, recognized their incorporation in the first place. So, there are some technical difficulties as we go along, but I think this is very good news that they're willing to sort it out. And we'll look at it, obviously, on a case-by-case basis. We've got to know first what kind of relationship these Republics want to have with the center before we can jump way ahead and say what we're going to do in each case.

Q. Mr. President, you delayed recognizing the Baltic countries, we're given to understand, because of the role of the United States as a superpower and because of your desire not to undercut Mikhail Gorbachev. What are the criteria now that you have decided this is the time to do this? Have you talked with someone in the Soviet Union? Are you satisfied with what the Russian Parliament is doing?

The President. Well, I think it's all moving in the right direction. I thought that Gorbachev's statement yesterday, for example, which was heralded around the world as recognizing the right of the Baltics to be free, whether that's a proper interpretation or not, that was a good statement. And we have been quietly asserting to him for a long time that the best thing he could do in terms of relationships with the United States is to free the Baltic States. And we've been working hard on that, and so it's taken me -- a final decision -- 3 or 4 more days than somebody else. But in the sweep of history, I think we will be proved correct in taking just a few days to see if we can't effect change within the Soviet Union, and I'm very pleased of the two developments I've talked to you today about.

Q. Have you had any contact with senior Soviet officials about this? Has this been coordinated with them at all?

The President. I've been in touch with Mr. Gorbachev two or three times since my telephone conversation with him.

Q. Mr. President, I wonder if you'd amplify a bit on your reaction to this "ten-plus-one" deal that Mr. Gorbachev seems to be working out, especially in light of some of your comments last week and those of your advisers, and the interest the United States has in there being a Soviet Union, in there being a central government?

The President. Well, I can't help you at all on it until I know a little more about it, until I know what will work out between them. You may also remember that last week I talked about the need for them to work these problems out without dictation or a decree every day from the United States. I think it is very early; we just don't know the details of it. But we'll be there, and we will work with what evolves.

But the different Republics have different relationships, and we simply at this point -- I don't believe there's anybody that knows enough about it to give a good, definitive answer to your very good question.

Q. I wonder if at some point, sir, you saw events spinning out of control, that at some point it appeared that Mr. Gorbachev may have been out of it, that the Soviet Union was going away?

The President. I don't feel that. I think things are moving. It's very difficult for them, but when you see their Congress meeting as it is, I think that's an extraordinarily good sign. When you see declarations that the center and the head of, the President of the biggest Republic want to work together, that's a good sign. When you see an orderly process being worked out for determining just exactly that, the relations between the Republic and the center, that's a good sign.

So, these things are moving. Again, I don't want to underestimate the problems the leaders face over there, but I really think it's too early for us to definitively comment on each Republic what the relations with the United States are going to be.

It is very clear that the Baltics are different. It's been clear all along that we were for their independence, and I think that this step that I've taken today will have wide support around the world. Clearly in the United States it'll have very strong support, and it's the right thing to do. I'm pleased that at least there seems to be some recognition coming out of the center now that this is a proper move.

Q. Will it not be simpler for the United States, sir, to be conducting foreign policy, still, with the central government? Are you not hoping that there's some sort of central government for foreign policy and arms control?

The President. I think there's got to be some government with which the United States works on many questions. I mentioned the other day contractual questions. You've raised the question here of further arms control agreements. We've got to work with the Soviet Union in terms of their very important role in the peace process in the Middle East. So, we will continue to deal with the Foreign Ministry, for example, in Moscow.

But as these other Republics come front and center, we then must determine what their role will be and how they can help with peace, or what they're going to do about distancing themselves from the last remaining communist dictator in this hemisphere. I'm talking about Fidel Castro.

We heard Boris Yeltsin, I think, properly, say, "Look, there's not going to be any aid from Russia, from the Russian Republic to Castro." That's good. We're for that position. We'd like to hear the center say the same thing. So, we've got to deal with who is there.

There are some very important questions that transcend internal events in the Soviet Union as far as we're concerned: Afghanistan, Cuba, the Middle East, all kinds of questions where we do need a strong partner, a convincing partner to deal with. But as this situation evolves, I can't predict for you whether it'll be a partner or a bunch of partners on what it's going to be. We just don't know yet.

Q. On the issue of ambassadors to the Baltics, would there be one ambassador for the region, or will there be an ambassador for each of the Baltics?

The President. Well, I expect that since we recognize the independence and the standing of each of these States, there will be separate diplomatic missions for each State. We're getting Secretary Kamman to go over there and take a look at all of that, talk about the details, as other countries are now doing. But no, they won't be lumped in as kind of "the Baltic States." We will be looking to the independence of each State.

Middle East Peace Conference

Q. Mr. President, you mentioned the Middle East. Have you or officials in your administration had conversations with Soviet officials? What is the prospect for convening a peace conference in October, as you had hoped?

The President. Well, I don't know. I can't give you the prospect of that. I don't think it's been adversely affected by anything in the Soviet Union, however. So, the ball lies in other courts, and Jim Baker has been in touch with various participants, even though he's been away. But we've been keeping up active work there, and I would hope that we'd be able to go forward with a peace conference that the entire world wants to see take place.

But I don't think it's been adversely affected, Gene [Gene Gibbons, Reuter News Service], by what's happened inside the Soviet Union. In other words, I see no force pulling away, whether it's a Republic or the center, from pulling away from the constructive role the Soviets have played in this.

Q. Will Secretary Baker be going back on a sixth trip, sir? There's some talk -- --

The President. Well, I expect sometime, but there are no plans for it right now. I talked to him, I guess it was yesterday or the day before, but that was not discussed.

Soviet Union

Q. Do you see, Mr. President, Gorbachev as the best person positioned to weld the Republics together into some form of economic union?

The President. Well, I see him as the President of the Soviet Union, and therefore he will be dealt with with respect. People know how I feel about him, and he's in an extraordinarily difficult position now. He has had our support. He will continue to have our support. Policy isn't based on personality; it's based on who you're dealing with. The fact that I happen to think that he's done an awful lot for the world is out there for all to see. I think everybody in the G - 7 and EC and all these groupings share my respect for what has been done.

Take a look at -- Eastern Europe is a good place to start. Take a look at this hemisphere where we've had cooperation, or Angola or many other things. That's there. That's on the record. Now, how we move forward -- I'll deal with him and with respect and with a certain degree of recognition that we look at some of these problems, foreign policy problems, eye to eye. How it evolves inside the Soviet Union, I once again say that's their business.

Q. Did he send any communications at all to you requesting that you delay your announcement on the Baltic States?

The President. I think, put it this way: Without going into the confidentiality of any communications, I think the fact that we have waited until now is not only understood but very much appreciated by him and hopefully by others in the Soviet Union. I like to think that some of these positive statements might, perhaps indirectly, but might be a result of a policy of taking a day or two more, not being stampeded into something the whole world knew we were going to do in the first place. And I've made sure that President Landsbergis and the others understand this because I wouldn't want to send a signal to them that we were weakening in our desire to have them free.

But when history is written, nobody is going to remember that we took 48 hours more than Iceland or whoever else it is. But what's going to be remembered is what happens, how does it work out. And that's what we're interested in, is seeing the Baltic States quickly get their independence and the freedom that they've long aspired to. And I think there was quite a bit of understanding amongst the Baltic leaders of the position of the United States once I made clear to them that we were determined to see this recognition go forward.

United States Foreign Policy

Q. Mr. President, what refinements are made necessary now by the events of the last 2 weeks on the new world order in particular and U.S. foreign policy in general?

The President. The first part of the question?

Q. What refinements do you find necessary?

The President. Well, again I think we have to wait and see what evolves inside the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is facing enormously difficult problems, obviously, on the economic front. But I'm confident that all of the developments there which have an underpinning of freedom, the desire for independence, for self-determination, all of those things work in favor of what I referred to as a new world order. It really could be described as democracy on the move.

Now, some have a long way to go before democracy is perfected. But I think as we see this evolution, it is clearly a recognition that others, too, want to participate in this new world order. They want self-determination; they want the independence; they want the strength that freedom and democracy give them. All of that's very, very exciting. And I think the world, I think history will write this month down as one of the most important turning points towards a genuine new world order, and certainly a turning point towards freedom and democracy. There's no question about that. It's been monumental.

Defense Budget

Q. Would you project large cuts in the defense budget, for example, though?

The President. No. I wouldn't predict large cuts in the defense budget. As we've said, when we sent a sound defense budget to the Hill, the United States must be ready.

The last need for a strong defense and show of muscle had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, except we got their cooperation. And I'm talking about what we were talking about a year ago: Would we have to use force to turn back aggression? And it was only the United States that could take this leadership role. It's only the United States that had the credibility. It's only the United States, in my view, that single-handedly could express the will to go in there and do what we did, because we have such a disproportionate responsibility for the kind of military action in pursuit of freedom and against aggression that exists.

So, I think we've got to guard against the siren's call, "Now is the time to slash defense spending." I was standing here, how many days ago was it, somebody remind me, 8 or 9, when some people were saying, "Well, we ought to reverse out the defense cuts and add to our defense. Look what's happening in downtown Moscow this minute." And you heard that call go up. And so, we've got a good, sound defense program. And if there's ways that we can save money in defense, I'll be right out front. I've told the American people we're going to do it, and we have done it. We have cut defense. But I'm not going to cut into the muscle of defense of this country in a kind of an instant sense of budgetary gratification so that we can go over and help somebody when the needs aren't clear and when we have requirements that transcend historic concerns about the Soviet Union.

What I hope is that, out of all of these changes in the Soviet Union, we'll see some recognition that we're not their enemy, and they'll stop aiming missiles at the United States of America. They'll stop deploying new weapons systems. They'll stop spending billions of rubles on modernization of defense systems. When we see that, then we'll be there. And when our friends in Europe tell us that there's no threat at all of any kind to their borders from anybody, why, then we'll take a look. But I'm not going to be stampeded into what I would think of is kind of some mood of euphoria that misleads the American people about the national security interests of this country.

Demonstrations at Kennebunkport

Q. On a slightly different subject, the AIDS activists who were demonstrating out here yesterday basically took your suggestion. They were very orderly, very calm, and not as extreme as they sometimes have been. I wonder, did their message reach you at all, move you at all?

The President. Well, would you rephrase the message for me? We're spending $4 billion a year on AIDS research. When you consider that on a per capita basis compared to heart disease or cancer, it's an awful lot. It's far more.

So, what was the message?

Q. The message is that you're not acting strong enough; there's not enough leadership; there's not a coordinated comprehensive program. They're looking for something at the Cabinet level. A lot of -- better coordination between the agencies. They're looking for needle programs that can be federally funded; that sort of thing.

The President. I'm not in favor of federally funding needle programs. I am in favor of the most efficient and effective research possible. I'm in favor of compassion. I'm in favor of behavioral change. Here's a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior. You can't do that in cancer. Well, to some degree some might argue you can in heart disease if you run and stay fit.

So, if the message is compassion, I got it loud and clear. If the message is research, I would say please talk to Dr. Fauci and others at the National Institutes of Health who will tell you that we're doing pretty well in funding of research, and we've got the best scientists in the world. And I think there's more optimism in this community now, the scientific community, than there has ever been.

To the degree the message hit some little merchant in Kennebunkport on the best weekend possible and caused that person to close his doors, I got that part of it and didn't like it. To the degree they stayed within the law and weren't arrested, I support that kind of First Amendment demonstration. You know why they were here, and I know why they were here. They were here because you all are here. They were here because they could get disproportionate television coverage and, to some degree, print coverage because the President happened to be at his ancestral home, and I understand that.

There's another demonstration going on today, and I'll listen for the message. I think it has to do that we shouldn't use nuclear power. They don't need to demonstrate because I think we should use nuclear power. It's clean, and it's been safe, and we've got good science on that.

Then you had a demonstration last week. That was the one I was concerned about. Because some of the demonstrators, not those that were the organizers and the official paid organizers, but those who legitimately were out of work. That one hit home. Because when a family is out of work, that's one I care very much about.

So, we've had several of these demonstrations, and on each one I listen about it and get, I guess you might say get the message. Sometimes I agree with it, and sometimes I don't. I was elected President to do what I think is best, and I learn from listening, but I don't learn from some of the excesses that take place, whether it's in front of an abortion clinic or whether it's throwing blood or interrupting somebody's right to be heard.

So, I hope I got some message out of all of this, and I've tried to define it for you.

Baltic Independence

Q. Sir, you called for the Baltics to become independent as soon as possible. Gorbachev in his public statement seemed very vague about how cumbersome this constitutional process will be, how long it will take. Has he given you any assurances in private about some of the practical and legal dynamics or complications at work here?

The President. Not in the last couple of weeks, Norm [Norm Sandler, United Press International], but I've been into that with him in great detail in terms of what he sees as the constitutional constraints, if you will. In spite of all that, my urging is, to anybody with authority in the Soviet Union, is: Turn the Baltics loose now, free, clear. And, yes, there's going to have to be some negotiation between the center and between the States because there's an overlapping of resource responsibility: where does the energy come from; how do the steel imports go from one of the Baltics into the center. There's control of one's own territory.

One of the things that we have felt was necessary before full recognition has been control of the territory. And yet, as you see these Soviet troops leaving and you hear statements out of the Soviet Union that give you encouragement, then we feel that they're much better positioned to control their own territory totally.

There are still, as you point out, some details to be worked out however.

Q. Do you think, and do you think he thinks at this point that this is a fait accompli, that this is going to happen and probably sooner rather than later?

The President. I have nothing that would be definitive on that for you, nothing that would cause me to make such a statement about what he thinks.

Q. What about your belief in the matter?

The President. Well, my belief is that it's inexorable, this quest for freedom and independence on the part of the Baltics, it's going to be a fait accompli. And it's pretty close to it now with the recognition of these different States and with the statements out of Moscow. But no, I don't think that process can be reversed if that's your question.

Last two. Two hands up.

Civil Conflicts

Q. Mr. President, there's already some trouble between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There's some trouble in Moldavia. Are you concerned about what is brewing in the Republics between the different nationalities, and is there any role the U.S. can play in solving this?

The President. I don't think much of a role. Again, as I've said over and over again, many of these complex questions steeped in history are going to have to be resolved by the parties themselves.

Q. Do you have any plans, sir, moving south a little bit, to offer any kind of recognition to any of the Yugoslavian States? Some of the European countries have suggested that if the fighting continues they would recognize Croatia and Slovenia as separate states. Is the U.S. taking any kind of policy position there?

The President. No, we're not there yet.

U.S. Aid to the Baltic States

Q. How about economic aid to the Baltics, Mr. President? Now that you're recognizing their independence, these countries are going to have a hard time economically. Are you going to step in with some money?

The President. I think it's a little premature to say what we will or won't do. I'm sending somebody over there to survey the scene. We'll be in close touch with these leaders.

There's an awful lot of people who want aid and are entitled to aid. We are limited in what we can do. I'm not about to forget Eastern Europe. It's all very exciting what's happening in the Baltic States and in the Republics and in Moscow. But it's also very important that Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Poland succeed. And we have a commitment to them in terms of aid. And I'm not about to forget it. And so we've got to sort all of this out. But clearly we will be in a listening mode, and hopefully we can be constructive partners as these countries move towards the independence they so richly deserve and achieve the independence they so richly deserve.

Thank you all very much. End of press conference nine for the summer vacation, not counting any questions on the golf course. Is that right, Marlin? I want to be sure I'm factually correct, yes.

Mr. Fitzwater. That's right, sir. Yes, sir.

The President. Take that down, please everybody. Note it. It's a very interesting historical fact, along with the changes.

And I will say this in the end of this: I know, there's nothing like off-the-record at an official press conference, but I think, given the monumental events that have taken place -- and I don't want this to be gratuitous because if I say something nice everybody out there is going to have to say something ugly to show they're not captives -- I think you all have been most understanding. We're up against extraordinary events. You have been relentless in shouting about it and asking me to respond, and I understand it.

But on balance, we've had a good rest up here and we have not been unduly infringed on in any way by outside or certainly by those who are with us here. And I go back with a fresh perspective. Yes, I caught no fish in the river today -- [laughter] -- but just the quiet out there and the fact that people understand that when one's on vacation that's the way it is from time to time means a great deal to me and to my entire family.

Thank you.

Note: President Bush's 102d news conference began at 10:05 a.m. at the President's home on Walker's Point. In the news conference, the following persons were referred to: President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union; Curtis Kamman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs; Richard T. Crowder, Under Secretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs; Secretary of Agriculture Ed Madigan; Secretary of State James A. Baker III; Ronald W. Roskens, Director of the United States International Development Cooperation Agency; President Arnold Ruutel of Estonia; President Anatolijs Gorbunovs of Latvia; President Vytautas Landsbergis of Lithuania; President Fidel Castro Ruz of Cuba; President Boris Yeltsin of the Republic of Russia; and Anthony Fauci, Director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Marlin Fitzwater is Press Secretary to the President.

George Bush, The President's News Conference in Kennebunkport, Maine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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