WHEN the Moscow regime of Mikhail Gorbachev tried to strangle Lithuania last year, cutting off fuel and threatening worse in a bid to stifle the little country's cry for independence, the Bush administration remained largely silent. The reasoning in Washington was that Mr. Gorbachev remained the best hope for overall reform in the Soviet Union, and the United States should stand by him.
Similarly, not too long after the hard-line regime in Beijing massacred Chinese students demonstrating for freedom in Tiananmen Square, the Bush administration made friendlier overtures to that regime than many Americans considered acceptable.
The administration's hope was that it could work with that repressive regime and influence it to take more more moderate actions. China, it was argued in Washington, was too important to ignore, whatever regime was in power.
In those two instances, the Bush administration opted to ignore acts of repression by communist powers, on grounds that the national interest of the United States would best be served by working with the governing regimes.
With the current Soviet assault on Lithuania, President Bush has taken a different tack. He has been swift to condemn Soviet military action in Lithuania, even at a time when he desperately needs Soviet support for his policies in the Gulf.
But the speed of his reaction is unlikely to forestall a major debate among Americans about the future of the US-Soviet relationship, and about whom the United States should be supporting in the Soviet Union.
It was Ronald Reagan, that doughty doubter of communist sincerity, who first became enchanted by Mikhail Gorbachev. When George Bush became president, he seemed at first a little cautious about Mr. Gorbachev, but in time he too came to believe that Gorbachev was the best hope for constructive change in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Mr. Gorbachev has been much easier for the US to deal with than a string of his predecessors.
But as the Soviet Union has lurched from one internal crisis to another, Mr. Gorbachev has seemed to become increasingly dependent upon the military and the KGB.
If he did order the military action in Lithuania, is Nobel Peace Prize-winner Gorbachev still the man the United States should be relying on to change the face of the Soviet Union for the better?
And if he did not order the military action, and has declined to rein in the army, is the military out of his control and free to repeat such repression at any other suggestion of civil unrest?
Either way, it seems to add justification to former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze's recent warnings of a drift away from democracy and in the direction of dictatorship.
Once, there would have been no public outcry in the Soviet Union against Moscow's actions in Lithuania. But this time around there have been demonstrations in Red Square by Soviet citizens shouting ``Shame, shame,'' and protesting vigorously against the use of military force against unarmed civilians. It is an interesting contradiction. There has been reform enough in the Soviet Union so that citizens can publicly deride and boo Mr. Gorbachev; but the reason for their anger is repression that makes a mockery of Mr. Gorbachev's pretensions to democracy.
Should the Bush administration continue gambling on Gorbachev? Or should it be aligning itself more closely with the Lithuanians and other minorities, and the millions of Russians themselves who are exhilarated by freedom's scent and who have been demanding a faster pace to reform?
In the midst of the Gulf crisis, Mr. Bush will have to take important decisions about the extent of American cooperation with a Gorbachev government that is denying to Lithuania the sovereignty the United States is willing to wage war for in Kuwait.
Should American aid continue undiminished to the USSR?
More immediately, should President Bush proceed with his summit meeting with President Gorbachev next month? So far, Mr. Gorbachev has declined to disassociate himself from the military assault on Lithuania. Until he does, there is a real question as to whether President Bush should meet with him.