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2 days solidifying new U.S.-Russia relationship bear Baker's mark


WASHINGTON -- He stood partly obscured by a Rose Garden pillar at the summit's crucial moment, announcement of a landmark U.S.-Russian arms agreement, his face all but expressionless.

But there was no mistaking James A. Baker III's role as impresario of this week's Bush-Yeltsin visit, which allowed President Bush to reassert world leadership and gain at least a short-term political boost.

The two days that solidified a drastically changed relationship with Russia bore the familiar markings of the secretary of state and political tactician: exhaustive preparation, tight-lipped negotiations leading to a dramatic breakthrough, shrewd timing and rapid damage control.

They highlighted one overwhelming advantage of incumbency: a president's ability to exert control over foreign affairs.

Other events are in store, including next month's economic summit and follow-on Helsinki meeting on European security. The pre-election capstone could turn out to be an Israeli-Palestinian interim self-government agreement, the first major Middle East peace accord since Camp David.

Neither administration officials nor outside political experts see the summit or foreign policy successes generally as decisive in this post-Cold War election year, with the country just pulling out of a recession and voter dissatisfaction rampant.

"It's not a scary world out there any more," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. Mr. Bush "has to be able to link foreign affairs and the domestic agenda here at home."

He can do that with the massive two-thirds cuts in strategic nuclear weapons announced this week by showing a domestic payoff in a less costly defense, although that payoff may be offset by the need to help Russia dismantle its weapons.

The summit and upcoming events garner wide attention and play to Mr. Bush's strength.

"It's nothing more or less than showing what he does best," says a senior official. "Elections don't turn on foreign policy. They do turn on leadership."

The summit, the official said, will help Mr. Bush remind voters in October that "a president deals with big, big, big issues, like world peace," something that can still stir baby-boomers with memories of nuclear-bomb drills. "It's another piece of the puzzle."

Summits also offer an opportunity to focus a vast bureaucracy toward achieving a goal by a deadline.

Preparation began in earnest in February after Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's brief visit with Mr. Bush at Camp David. The United States and Russia launched a joint effort to go well beyond last year's strategic arms accord in a fashion different from the years-long, detail-wracked negotiations of the past: this time, the foreign ministers themselves took charge.

The Americans wanted to eliminate what are widely viewed as Russia's most destabilizing weapons, its land-based SS18s. The Russians sought deeper cuts in overall numbers and to remove multiple-warhead missiles from America's submarine-based missile force.

Each side had to compromise cherished military doctrine. From the United States, this came sometime before Mr. Baker's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in Lisbon last month, when President Bush authorized a cut in the number of warheads on submarine-based missiles.

On the Russian side, Lisbon brought a willingness not to insist on elimination of submarine-based multiple warheads in exchange for the SS18s.

But that still left disputes over overall numbers, the timetable and cost of dismantling missiles, U.S. bomber forces and parity that required further negotiations in Washington and London.

The deal was mostly done before Mr. Yeltsin arrived here Monday afternoon, but it took a session in the Oval Office to settle the final question: unequal cutbacks by the United States and Russia. Mr. Yeltsin broached the final compromise, allowing each side to set a ceiling within a range.

Both sides' determination to get an agreement made one all but certain despite the last-minute questions. But the sweep and depth of the cuts were a stunner, representing a sea-change in each country's attitude toward the other.

To underscore the changed relationship, Mr. Baker drove his bureaucrats to nail down a host of other agreements wiping out the last vestiges of the Cold War, from a seven-year squabble over the Soviet-bugged U.S. Embassy in Moscow to trade restrictions, and culminating in a vaguely worded but far-reaching friendship charter.

"Week in and week out, he was asking, 'Where are we on each of these elements,' " a U.S. official said.

Diplomats raised with the Russian government the concerns that Mr. Yeltsin likely would face from members of Congress, though they knew they didn't need to coach the dynamic and natural politician.

One concern -- about U.S. prisoners of war -- turned into a firestorm with Mr. Yeltsin's assertion that POWs, including perhaps some from the Vietnam War, had been held in the Soviet gulag and might even be still alive.

Mr. Bush and his top national security advisers decided to announce the arms agreement on the summit's first day just after it had been reached, in part to lock in both sides publicly. Even so, there was a fear that POW questions could "overwhelm" the arms announcement, a senior official said, and Mr. Bush's advisers huddled over a response that would contain the damage.

The president ended up praising Mr. Yeltsin for volunteering the information, redoubling efforts to get to the bottom of it and saying there was no "evidence" of live POWs.

Despite all the preparation, there remained a glaring void in the summit: absence of congressional action on a Russian aid package.

Democrats claim the administration was late in introducing it and reluctant to campaign for it, as squeamish as they are about foreign aid in an election year.

A senior administration official bitterly blamed a Democratic effort to damage Mr. Bush.

As it turned out, Mr. Yeltsin was his own best lobbyist, galvanizing bipartisan support with a stemwinder of a speech before Congress. A legislative logjam broke that night with agreement on an urban aid bill, and the Senate may take up the Russian support package next week.

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