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WISE OLD MAN SPEAKS -- BUT NOBODY LISTENS

George Kennan, the Wise Old Man of American diplomacy, came to town and almost nobody noticed. That tells you about the bang-bang attention span of American politicians, their brains buzzing with static and headlines like all-news radio stations.

George Bush, Dan Quayle, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft and other operators of American power should have gathered around Kennan's knee, taking notes like dutiful schoolboys.

They were busy scanning State Department cables on the turmoil in the Soviet Union or East Germany, that chunk of the world nobody knows better than George Kennan.

He's 85, a square-jawed, balding man with a strong voice, a mind like an ice pick, and a Churchillian command of language lost to a generation bred on 30-second sound bites.

Not only has Kennan seen a big sweep of history, he is history.

Kennan was in Moscow during the Stalin purge. He was in Berlin when Hitler declared war. He was in Prague when the Soviets invaded. He was instigator of the Marshall Plan. As Moscow envoy, he coined the Soviet "containment" that American presidents pursued for 40 years.

Too bad, when the Wise Old Man appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., was on hand. Biden gushed like a rookie in the presence of Babe Ruth.

Since Bush & Co. weren't listening, here's Kennan's owl's-eye view:

Bad news: Mikhail Gorbachev probably won't survive politically. (But there's a way the U.S. can help.) Good News: If Gorby goes, his policies are irreversible.

"The situation in the Soviet Union is highly unstable. Gorbachev is in great difficulty and danger," said Kennan, noting the ethnic rebellions and consumers' frustrations. "The Soviet public holds Gorbachev personally responsible. . . ." What's saving Gorbachev, said Kennan, is his worldwide popularity. And no Kremlin jockey wants to inherit his mess.

"Gorbachev's position is precarious and could change unexpectedly," said Kennan. "But his policies are locked in place."

Bush could help bail out Gorbachev, thinks Kennan, by pushing faster, much deeper cuts in conventional forces. He scoffs at Pentagon fantasies of tanks rumbling against the West as "absolute nonsense."

"Can you imagine the East German regime ordering an attack on West Germany?" asked Kennan. "That belongs in a dream world."

Biden, his politician's eye on the hot headline, wondered about Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's brainstorm: millions of U.S. dollars, some sliced from other countries, in a mini-Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe's infant democracies.

The Wise Old Man, who helped invent the real Marshall Plan, thought it was crazy.

"I don't think we have a stake in it," rumbled Kennan. "They have sources of help in Western Europe and Japan."

That had a chill, stingy sound from a statesman who's never been isolationist. But to Kennan, Uncle Sam's 1940-50s generosity is outdated by U.S. troubles.

"I look around me at this country, senator," Kennan told Biden. "I think we have great unsolved problems at home. They are not only financial -- the budget deficit, the trade imbalance, the world's greatest debtor nation. Our first duty is to put our own country in the sort of state it should be, not get carried away giving large financial aid to others. We already give too much to a number of countries."

Bravo. Kennan might have added that if Dole and others are so fervent about refinancing East Europe, why not take the bucks from defense cuts?

Is Kennan's 1990 view of the U.S. too dark? He's usually right. In 1966, when this same Senate panel asked him about the Vietnam War, Kennan snapped, "The U.S. has no national interest there. We should withdraw."

Now the Wise Old Man's advice is equally sane: Rebuild America first.

Too bad nobody was listening.

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