Clinton agenda linked to Yeltsin fate Senators say his downfall could doom defense cuts needed for domestic sector

March 23, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As events moved in dizzying speed half a world away yesterday, the Clinton administration began to worry that virtually everything it wants to accomplish -- both at home and abroad -- could be jeopardized if Russia's fledgling democracy unravels.

In a major foreign policy speech in Chicago, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said that ensuring Russia's peaceful evolution into a democracy "is the greatest strategic challenge of our time."

"For America, the stakes are just monumental," he added. "If Russia falls into anarchy or lurches back to despotism, the price that we pay could be frightening. Nothing less is involved than the possibility of renewed nuclear threat, higher defense budgets, spreading instability, the loss of new markets and a devastating setback for the worldwide democratic movement."

Events in Moscow, the secretary of state added, "deserve the attention of each and every American."

They certainly had the attention of Mr. Clinton and his staff, who watched with consternation as the crisis reinvigorated the Senate debate over defense budget cuts.

At the White House, George Stephanopoulos, the communications director, stressed the administration's position that the April 3-4 summit in Vancouver, B.C., between President Clinton and embattled Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was still on.

Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Clinton would consider going to Moscow for the summit -- if that were Mr. Yeltsin's desire. She was responding to a suggestion from Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the minority leader, who said that Mr. Yeltsin risked being ousted by traveling to North America.

Clinton administration officials said that they believe Mr. Yeltsin is not only the elected leader of Russia but also the national figure most committed to setting his nation on a path toward free-market democracy.

"President Yeltsin . . . is the leader of the reform process," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. "That is not to say that there are not other reformers in Russia as well, but he personifies the reform process."

Mr. Christopher said in his Chicago speech: "He's the one person in that country who has the support of the Russian people."

Already, the foreign crisis was threatening to derail Mr. Clinton's smoothly running budget initiatives here at home.

On the floor of the Senate, Republicans were using the disarray in Moscow as a rationale for opposing Mr. Clinton's proposal to cut $100 billion in defense spending over the next five years.

"Events of this weekend ought to sober us all," warned Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who argued that Mr. Clinton's proposed Pentagon cuts go too far: "The Russian Republic today threatens to descend into anarchy. For the first time in history, a nuclear power seems on the brink of civil war. Instability and uncertainty sweep a continent as a president clings to power."

Those proposed defense cuts, however, are at the heart of Mr. Clinton's attempt to reduce the budget deficit while altering the nation's budget priorities.

Mr. Clinton has proposed spending much more money "investing in Americans" through programs for infant health, youth summer employment and adult job retraining.

Democrats loyal to Mr. Clinton's vision fought back in a fierce, all-day debate on the Senate floor.

Holding aloft a copy of "Soviet Military Power," the annually updated book that previous defense secretaries in the Reagan/Bush eras used to cajole Congress into huge military budgets, Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee bellowed, "My friends, the Soviet Union is no more! The United States is the only remaining superpower on the face of the globe."

The most powerful Senate Democrat on defense-related issues, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, staked out a middle ground.

Without mentioning the Russian situation, he introduced two amendments that would make it more difficult for either Senate Democrats or the president to shift money from the Pentagon to social programs at a later time, after the budgets have been agreed upon.

"I just don't want to see defense wrecked," Mr. Nunn said.

Mr. Christopher sought to assure members of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that maintaining a strong defense was one of the "pillars" of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union enables us to significantly scale back our military establishment, but, nevertheless, our power must always be sufficient to counter any threat to our vital interests," Mr. Christopher said. "We must be able to deter, and, when necessary, to defeat any potential foe."

This is the kind of debate the White House thought it had all but won.

Mr. Christopher also focused in his speech on what he saw as another positive result of the collapse of the Soviet empire: the chance for a potentially historic Mideast peace agreement.

He said that in the days of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union pitted Mideastern governments against each other, such a regional agreement might not have been possible.

But he added, with a sense of urgency, that if Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab nations didn't return to the peace table soon, "a unique chance [could] slip away."

News Conference

President Clinton will hold the first formal news conference of his administration at 1 p.m. today. Most network television stations, as well as CNN, are expected to carry it live.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.