Gambling on Russia's reformers

January 13, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THE real question behind this NATO trip," Professor Michael Mandelbaum told several of us just before the president's trip, "is, 'Does Boris Yeltsin have a better idea of the dangers to him than we do?' "

With those curious words, expressed at a Freedom House briefing in the U.S. Capitol, President Clinton's leading adviser on Russia encapsulated the treacherous suppositions behind the president's 7 1/2 -day trip this week to Brussels, Prague, Moscow, Minsk and Geneva.

The lurking fear among many here is that the administration's overweening focus on Russia -- a virtual capitulation to Russia at the expense of everything and everybody else -- could historically spell out a modern-day Yalta.

In February of 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave in to Joseph Stalin over Eastern Europe. Roosevelt trusted him to keep his word. As a result, Stalin took over most of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, which were not freed until 1989.

The situation today is the reverse -- and therefore perverse. Today the Clinton administration, admirably trying to avoid awakening more ultranationalistic and anti-Western fervor in Russia, is refusing, under Russian pressure and veiled threats, to do more than give Eastern Europe a vague future possibility of entering NATO. There is no timetable, no real promise, no assurance of anything: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the others are left out there to take their chances, depending upon what happens in an "important" Russia.

This policy -- the president's sloganeering "Partnership for Peace," which he outlined for a group of us in the White House just before he left -- emerged this winter out of last fall's policy discussions. In particular, Russia policy coordinator and Deputy Secretary of State nominee Strobe Talbott, the specialist in Russian affairs formerly with Time magazine, led the "Russia-firsters" in the administration, arguing that taking the Eastern European states into NATO now would provoke Russia's historical fears of encirclement by the West and harm the Yeltsin reformers. His ideas won the day.

Although it is admirable to have officials and diplomats who think in terms of national psychology, more prescient words came from Polish President Lech Walesa. Just before the trip, Mr. Walesa made an impassioned but futile plea for Poland's inclusion in NATO.

"I think that the demons personified by [Russian ultranationalist Vladimir] Zhirinovsky grow in power not because the West is carrying out an active and firm policy, but because it fails to do this . . . This is not fear of Russia -- it is desertion."

Gen. William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, argued at the same Capitol meeting that "forbearance will inspire, not reduce, Russian imperialist tendencies. . . Russia is in no position to prevent the expansion of NATO today. In a few years, it may be. Thus, the time for equivocating is at an end."

Refusing to take the East into NATO now, he argued, will inevitably lead to the decline of NATO, because its mission will not have moved in accordance with the new realities of the time. And it threatens new ethnic wars, such as the horrendous one in Yugoslavia, because the stabilizing force that NATO membership would bring to Eastern Europe will not be there. ("Ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia Are Demanding Self-Government" was the headline on a Washington Post story the day the president arrived in Brussels.)

Correctly equating the dynamics of the Cold War with World War II, General Odom said that without these changes in NATO, "a new strategic divide will be drawn in Europe eventually, just as has been the case after all previous great wars."

Mr. Yeltsin told President Clinton, the president told us in the White House, that taking the East European states into NATO would hurt his reforms -- but is that so?

Can the ultranationalists now claim victory by defeating the U.S. on this NATO decision? Will this apparent cowardice embolden, not discourage, them? Is the disastrous economic "shock therapy" that American economists so mistakenly imposed upon Russia to blame for the wreckage that is the Russian economy?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Beyond these issues, there is the major concern about the use of American power in this administration. In Somalia, for instance, administration officials defined American policy as "constructive ambiguity." Perhaps the only possible weaker expression of intent came from the negotiators in Bosnia, who called for "masterly inactivity." And, tragically, although many of the Europeans are now finally ready for air strikes against the Serbs, President Clinton turned down this idea on the very first day of his trip.

When asked at the White House lunch if his imprecise policy toward NATO and Eastern Europe was a risk, the president answered ambiguously, "Is it a risk? Of course it is. I've made the best judgment I could on it, and I believe I'm right, and history will render a verdict."

Indeed it will.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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