Clinton's aid to Russia tests himself and voters ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 02, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--President Clinton's decision to press for financial aid for Russia is a test for both him and for the voters who put him into the White House.

In one sense, Clinton already has passed that test by saying, in effect, that he is willing to risk some of his political capital on the kind of proposal that is certain to evoke bitter criticism from some elements of the electorate. The key question now is whether Americans will accept his plea--outlined in detail before the American Society of Newspaper Editors--that they look beyond "the dilemmas of the moment" and see the "larger questions" involved in helping Boris Yeltsin.

It will not be an easy sell. Foreign aid programs have been unpopular for a generation, and the resistance has grown more stubborn when economic conditions at home have gone sour and so many voters have become preoccupied with their own jobs and futures. The response to the candidacy of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan last year demonstrated there is at least a significant minority of Americans who can be mobilized by the idea of a new isolationism.

The president tried to address those economic concerns in his speech to the editors. "This is not an act of charity," he said. "It is an investment in our own future."

The arguments Clinton outlined were familiar. A "peaceful progression" of change in the former Soviet Union, he said, would enhance the security interests of the United States by lessening the threat of another nuclear confrontation. It would make Russia a valuable ally in dealing with other international crises, as it was in the Persian Gulf War. It would allow the U.S. to continue diverting resources from the defense budget to peacetime purposes rather than having to finance a new arms race. It would help Russia use the country's enormous wealth to improve the conditions of life there--and, not incidentally, produce a huge new market for private enterprise.

Clinton's case is one that already has shown considerable bipartisan appeal in Congress. The reaction of such Republicans as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Leader Robert Michel suggests the loyal opposition is not likely to make this a test along conventional party lines.

But the White House knows there will be some emotional reaction against "helping those communists" that might start on the Far Right but clearly could reach many Americans worried about their own economic situations and already facing higher taxes. That was apparent in the pains taken by Clinton to anticipate complaints about the futility of such a program.

This, he said, would be a "people to people" program under which aid would be "broadly dispersed" so it would be "tangible" for the Russian people, not just some bureaucrats in Moscow. The aid would be designed with an eye to its longterm effect in helping stabilize the Russian currency. It would be distributed in partnership with other nations.

But the problem for Clinton and those in Congress inclined to support him on this initiative is that the foreign aid program is so little understood by most Americans who supported the idea of helping the unfortunate in the days immediately after World War II but wonder about it today. Few understand, for example, that most of the $14 billion in the foreign aid program now is spent by Israel and Egypt buying weapons in the United States. And that lack of understanding unsurprisingly breeds suspicion and resistance, particularly when the voters are being told they must sacrifice to bring down the deficit.

The amount of money Clinton wants to put into the program is not large by the standards of federal spending these days or by the dimensions of the need in Russia, probably less than $1 billion in the coming fiscal year. But the amount is, nonetheless, large enough so that there will be some inevitable comparisons with other ways it might be spent.

But the new president has shown the vision the recognize that this is a case in which the government must rise above what he called "the daily tyranny of the urgent" and define and act on its longterm purposes. Now we will see if he has enough credibility with the voters who put him in office to keep them behind him.

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