In the cruelest month

William Safire

April 07, 1993|By William Safire

APRIL is the cruelest month," wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, ". . . mixing Memory and desire."

In the April that features the first global presidential campaign, Boris Yeltsin is reminding both his compatriots and former superpower competitors of the threat to freedom of revanchist apparatchiks, while fanning the desire "to move from general assurances to pragmatic, specific acts."

In this noble enterprise, Bill Clinton has joined what amounts to the Friends of Boris, a network of shallow-pocketed political leaders, cautious entrepreneurs and many of us gung-ho multimedia types. The immediate goal of the new FOB: without appearing intrusive, to help the Russian reformers win the April 25 referendum.

That was the sole purpose of the Vancouver summit. Such outside political aid has its precedents: Khrushchev confessed he tried to help Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon, and Brezhnev later tried to prop up Mr. Nixon at a summit after Watergate; in the other direction, Ronald Reagan and George Bush tried to support Mikhail Gorbachev against Mr. Yeltsin's challenge. The success rate of intercontinental carpetbagging has not been high.

But an unbroken string of flops is no reason not to give the April referendum our best shot. Last weekend's meeting -- more a pep rally than what Churchill called "a parley at the summit" -- should be judged in the light of what it set out to do.

Did it send inspiring pictures home to Russia? Yes; the shot of Mr. Yeltsin disdaining an umbrella, that symbol of weakness and appeasement, preferring to stand in the cold Canadian rain hatless and fearless, was as close as he could come to climbing on a tank. (Mr. Clinton had to follow suit; only their host, Brian Mulroney, classily stepping down as prime minister to preserve his party's national leadership, could afford to take cover.)

And at the joint press conference at the conclusion of their worldwide photo op, Mr. Yeltsin came off not as a mendicant but as a proud, forceful statesmen leading a potentially rich country. "These are not Christmas presents," he said of what he called "the Clinton package." Not the Bush-era pie in the sky: "These are real figures that are do-able."

The Vancouver meeting was a telegenic campaign event, milked beforehand with a send-off rally of 50,000 Siberians.

In coming weeks, Russians should be treated to tangible evidence of the trip's results: not another multibillion-dollar promise, but food on the docks and visible deals in the works. The first priority makes business sense: to get Western investors to develop Russia's oil and gas resources.

Before the referendum, Japan should drop its humiliating demand for the return of territory before joining in economic aid; Richard Nixon, an original Friend of Boris, is not on his way to Tokyo this week to sniff the cherry blossoms. The G-7 ministerial meeting in that city will be held April 14, involving the rest of the industrial world in the Russian referendum.

How does the coming show of global support for Mr. Yeltsin affect Mr. Clinton's image? At past summits, the spin doctors of both sides made their man look good at the expense of the other; this time, however, pundits everywhere were serviced by high-level American spin doctors marveling at the wit, wisdom, dignity and sheer gutsiness of the Russian leader.

Of course, a pitch is also made about the skill and grace of the young American president at his first superpower outing, and it cannot be denied that he did his homework, showed due deference and made no mistakes at his joint press conference.

But despite the tut-tutted unpopularity of foreign aid, Mr. Clinton is expending little political capital in the bipartisan backing of Boris. The summit in the cruelest month was neither a test of diplomatic skill nor an exhibition of national nerve. There may come a day when Mr. Clinton has to negotiate strongly from a weak position, or to face down a foreign leader at a tense summit; this was not that day.

Vancouver was an early moment in a momentous political campaign, and Mr. Clinton the experienced campaign consultant zeroed in on candidate Yeltsin's central message and his opposition's weakness: "He trusts the Russian people. He put the fate of the Russian government into the hands of the people of Russia. That is a very great thing."

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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