Our Man in Russia

January 03, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The United States enters the New Year with a justified confidence in the domestic prospect but no reason at all to believe that a good year is ahead in its international relations. The Somalian and Haitian fiascoes have been evidence of an administration ineptitude in foreign policy which its approach to the forthcoming NATO summit confirms.

The Clinton administration refuses to contemplate the horrors of the Bosnian affair, resorting to the hypocrisy that leadership in the matter has been ceded to Western Europe. Western Europe is itself mired in what one French diplomat calls ''the sinister circus'' of providing humanitarian aid that facilitates conquest and atrocity.

Washington's policy for the rest of ex-Communist Europe consists of an act of faith in Boris Yeltsin. This personalization of American foreign relations is in the worst national tradition. Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy was defined by his admiration for Winston Churchill, his misplaced confidence that he would ''handle'' Stalin, his avuncular patronage of Chiang Kai-shek, and his dislike of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who declined to be patronized.

Richard Nixon called his relationship with Leonid Brezhnev ''the most exclusive club in the world.'' Henry Kissinger became fascinated with the ''gracious and brilliant'' Chou En-lai. Hence China's subsequent success in playing the Nixon administration against the U.S.S.R.

The Clinton administration's policy is based upon the anticipated re-creation of an essentially bipolar Europe, in which a future Russia will play a stabilizing role. An unqualified commitment to Mr. Yeltsin is seen as necessary counterpart to Mr. Yeltsin's commitment to an American conception of democratic and capitalist reform.

This is extremely dangerous. Mr. Yeltsin is unquestionably an impressive figure, but so was Mikhail Gorbachev before him, and Mr. Gorbachev changed the history of his country for the better, which Mr. Yeltsin has yet to do. He is not the only potential leader of Russia today, nor do we know that he is the best one. Even if he is, he is not helped by America's sponsorship when the nationalists' charge against him is that he is selling his country to American imperialists, German revanchists and ''cosmopolitan'' capitalism.

The record of unsuccessful American nominees for power in other countries includes not only Chiang Kai-shek and France's hapless Gen. Henri Giraud, but Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky in Vietnam, Gen. Lon Nol in Cambodia (in order to oust Prince Sihanouk), Joseph Mobuto in Zaire, the late Shah of Iran, Greece's cabal of colonels in 1967, Jonas Savimbi in Angola and a series of Latin American dictators memorably characterized by Franklin Roosevelt as each being ''an SOB, but our SOB.'' It is a list which Mr. Clinton's newly appointed deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, author of the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia, might profitably reflect upon.

A consequence of American policy is that Russia is being allowed to dictate American security policy toward Russia's former victims in Eastern Europe, who want security assurances from NATO. Washington will not give these assurances because Russia objects, and because the administration calculates that Mr. Yeltsin might be weakened were the U.S. and its allies to guarantee the new independence of the former victims of Soviet aggression.

The result, predictably, is soaring anxiety in Eastern Europe, a defensive nationalism and provocative policy-making there, together with strengthened nationalism in Russia as Russia's nationalists find they are exercising an effective veto over Washington's policies.

The foreign-policy legacy of this administration is chiefly that of the Carter administration, in which both Mr. Clinton's secretary of state and his national-security adviser served. Mr. Carter's foreign policy was marked by abundant good will but an unfortunate over-confidence in the good will of others.

Mr. Carter understood American sin and American sinners, but was out of his depth confronting the visionary fanaticism that emerged in the Islamic world during the 1970s. The nationalist fanaticism and paranoia loose in the Balkans today seem equally beyond the range of intellectual response among the Clinton administration's foreign policy people. They seem not to see politics, power, aggression and personal ambition in Balkan war, but merely a quaint medieval fanaticism. That Balkan war nonetheless will have consequences for America's future they seem not to see. Their attention is on Moscow.

However, Moscow's immediate future is deeply uncertain. American and Western interests, and East European as well as Russian stability, are best served by stating clearly what our interests are today, and taking steps ourselves to assure them. Reform in Russia will be produced by Russians, not Americans.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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