Clinton Can't Put Foreign Policy Off Any Longer

The one thing Bill Clinton was determined he would not do as President was become enmeshed in foreign affairs. He was keenly aware that George Bush had paid the ultimate political price for his image as the "foreign policy President." In his first months in office, Clinton studiously focused on an ambitious domestic economic agenda and delegated the heavy lifting on Bosnia, Somalia, North Korea, and other international hot spots to top foreign policy aides. But the constitutional crisis brewing in Russia is forcing Clinton's hand: He can't duck foreign policy any longer.

The stakes for the U.S. in the outcome of the tense confrontation between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Russia's parliament are simply too great. Americans, indeed the world, are looking to Clinton to take the lead in supporting democratic reform in Russia. "If you're the President of the United States," says Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), "you have to call people to the table and be the catalyst for change."

LATE BRIEFING. Clinton is starting to do just that. In recent weeks, the President repeatedly has gone out of his way to voice strong support for Yeltsin and the reform process. Events in Russia have figured prominently in Clinton's recent discussions with world leaders, from French President Fran cois Mitterrand to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And Clinton is spending more and more time huddling with top advisers on Russian policy. He led off his first formal press conference as President with a ringing endorsement of the Russian President. "This is an issue [Clinton] cares passionately about," says a senior Administration official.

Clinton is drawing on a wide circle of foreign policy experts. He delegates more than Bush, who often set policy toward Russia with a clutch of top aides. Chief among Clinton's counselors are National Security Adviser Anthony Lake; Lake's deputy, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger; Russian policy czar Strobe Talbott, a Clinton roommate from Oxford days; Toby Trister Gati, a top Russia specialist at the National Security Council; and Larry Summers, Under Secretary-designate at the Treasury Dept. Insiders say it's a cooperative bunch, although there are divisions over the progress Moscow should make in meeting economic targets before receiving Western assistance.

Despite such disputes, Clinton and his advisers are putting the finishing touches on a package of as much as $1 billion in bilateral aid to bolster the reform movement in Russia. Mindful of previous aid pledges that haven't panned out, the Administration is targeting "concrete projects that can make a difference," says one senior official. The package is likely to include enterprise funds to spur small-business development and loan guarantees to fund housing for hundreds of thousands of demobilized Russian soldiers (table).

The aid program is being assembled in preparation for Clinton's first trip abroad as President, his Apr. 3-4 meeting with Yeltsin in Vancouver. Some experts argue that the U.S. should push ahead with political and economic assistance even if Yeltsin falls, so long as his successors do not invoke military rule. "You've got to take a long-term view," says Robert B. Zoellick, Under Secretary of State in the Bush Administration. "We don't want to do what we did with China in 1949 and cast them out." He notes that regardless of the political upheavals in Moscow, reform is making progress at the grass-roots level in the Russian hinterlands. The U.S. should help to further that by fostering private business development and helping to build democratic institutions in the regions, Zoellick argues.

Washington will have to deal with whoever rules Russia. But financial and even technical aid will be an extremely tough political sell in the U.S. if hard-line nationalists succeed Yeltsin. "A government that does not favor democracy, a market economy, and private property will not make much headway in terms of American public and private money," warns Lugar.

A FIRESTORM? But complicating any effort to help Russia is the war in Bosnia, where hard-line Russians are smuggling in men and weapons to help their fellow Slavs, the Serbians. For now, the Yeltsin government has backed Clinton for a "no fly" zone over Bosnia to be patrolled by NATO. But any stepped-up American role in former Yugoslavia could inflame conservative Russians who have already accused Yeltsin of selling out to the West.

The turmoil in Russia couldn't have come at a more delicate time for Clinton. Some of his key domestic initiatives are at critical stages. His economic program faces stiff opposition in the Senate that will require plenty of arm-twisting to overcome. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), an influential voice on defense issues, is balking at the scale of Clinton's proposed military budget cuts. And in early May, Hillary Rodham Clinton will unveil a health-care-reform plan whose expected limits on doctors' fees and patients' choice of physicians are sure to touch off a firestorm. Even so, the demands of Russia and other crises spots will keep Clinton focused on foreign policy.

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