Is Boris Yeltsin as important to the United States and the world as the Clinton administration thinks he is? Or are Americans once again exaggerating the effects of a man on the politics of his time?
Henry Kissinger has written that he thinks it unwise to gear American policy ''so totally'' to an individual, ''whatever his merits.'' It is mistaken to see the political struggle in Russia as ''a clear-cut contest between democracy and a return to the old system.''
Tying the United States so closely to a single leader, Mr. Kissinger argues, involves us in a complex power struggle we may not fully understand and on whose outcome we can have only marginal influence.
The proper focus of American foreign policy, he tells us once again, is our own national interest and that is best served by a pluralistic Russia and ''a restrained Russian foreign policy.'' Mr. Kissinger worries about the return of Russia's imperial tendency, a whiff of which he perceived in Mr. Yeltsin's hint of a Russian Monroe Doctrine. He declines seriously to consider the possibility that a democratic Russia is the best insurance against an expansionist Russia.
This argument -- that the U.S. national interest should not be linked to any man, government or power struggle -- is vintage Kissinger.
Because it points us toward enduring national interests, the argument has obvious merit. But I believe it ignores the importance particular individuals assume at particular moments in history. Usually we recognize such men and moments only in retrospect.
The arrival in power of V.I. Lenin in 1917, of Benito Mussolini in 1922, of Adolf Hitler in 1933 had colossal consequences for their government's policies and for the world. Obviously each transformed the government in which he rose to power into an expansionist regime that relied on force at home and abroad, in domestic and foreign affairs.
Obviously it would have been desirable to influence the power struggles from which these world-class tyrants emerged.
Of course, it is true, as Mr. Kissinger argues, that the United States ''must be prepared to pursue our national interest with any government that emerges, judging it by its actions and not by taking preconceived positions in Moscow power struggles.''
But the whole point about violent leaders and the regimes that they establish is their utter disregard for the national interest of others. The United States could not ''pursue its national interest'' by cultivating normal relations with Adolf Hitler, any more than -- try as we might -- we could pursue our national interest by cultivating normal relations with Saddam Hussein.
The issue, of course, is not just a man. It is that sometimes a regime is an expression of a man. Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Saddam Hussein are each men who created the regimes they headed.
Usually the outcomes of power struggles are not so momentous. Usually they determine only the person who will govern, not the regime in which he governs. However, the Clinton administration is not alone in believing that the current power struggle in Moscow may determine not just who rules, but what kind of regime is consolidated.
Other Western governments, too, support Yeltsin not out of a frivolous preoccupation with personality but out of a deadly serious concern about the preservation in Russia of a peaceable democratic order. I think they are right and prudent to do so.
Obviously the U.S. government should not and, I believe, would not seek to influence a power struggle among contenders for power in a stable democracy.
But this is not a routine power struggle. It is the kind of power struggle that may well determine the character of the regime as well as the identity of the man who heads it. This struggle takes place, moreover, in precisely the kind of situation in which an individual can have the greatest impact on a political system.
The old regime has been partially dismantled. The new has not yet been consolidated. Whoever heads it will daily confront ambiguous, contradictory situations. By his responses he will shape the successor regime. It is therefore especially important that the president of Russia be a man of democratic goals and commitments.
Doubtless, Boris Yeltsin is not the only potential Russian president with democratic predispositions, but he is the only president elected in 1,000 years. He is the one we know. And he is already president. It is reasonable to hope that he remains so.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.