WASHINGTON -- For a president whose short suit is regarde to be foreign policy, the crisis in Russia offers Bill Clinton a serendipitous opportunity to enter the stage of world affairs in a politically advantageous position.
Some see in the crisis the ominous prospect of a return to the Cold War that would cripple President Clinton's determination to focus on economic recovery at home. But for the short term at least, the Russian turmoil gives Clinton the chance to demonstrate his commitment to the one overriding principle regarding American foreign policy that he enunciated in last year's campaign.
Repeatedly, Clinton talked about the imperative of conducting a foreign policy in harmony with American democratic principles, rather than one of expediency that often in the past had led the United States into embarrassing and uncomfortable arrangements with totalitarian or authoritarian regimes.
In his convention acceptance speech, Clinton pledged "an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing," and "an America that champions the cause of freedom and democracy, from Eastern Europe to Southern Africa . . ." The Russian crisis has given him a basis on which to act on those words, and so far he is taking it.
It no doubt is risky for the new American president to bet his chips so categorically on Boris Yeltsin as the Russian president faces the possibility of impeachment by a hostile legislature. But Clinton in doing so has drawn a clear distinction between Yeltsin as "the only person who has been elected . . . the first elected president in a thousand years" and a legislature "proceeding under a constitution that goes back to the communist era."
Even if Yeltsin is deposed, Clinton will have positioned himself in support of the democratic process and served notice on reactionary forces in Russia that the United States is committed to seeing that process continue there.
And if Yeltsin survives and is given another mandate for democratic change in the public referendum he is seeking for late next month, Clinton by having stood up for him in his hour of need will have a much stronger hand for dealing with him down the road.
Clinton is getting plenty of advice to low-ball his support for Yeltsin, the latest from former President Gerald Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Ford said on one of the morning television shows that he didn't believe the United States "should put all the emphasis on one person. There are more fundamental issues than one individual." But as Clinton pointed out in his news conference, Yeltsin "has the mandate of having been voted on in a free and open election."
When Yeltsin's predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, was temporarily deposed in the reactionary coup of August 1991, President George Bush seemed initially resigned to what he called merely a "disturbing development." He offered at first that he had a "gut instinct" that the chief plotter, Vice President Gennadi Yanayev, had "a certain commitment to reform," and soon had to beat a hasty retreat.
Clinton's position puts him clearly on the side of democratic reform no matter what happens to Yeltsin. "With or without President Yeltsin in authority," he said at his news conference, the American objective "is to support the development of democracy and freedom for the people of Russia."
The scheduled meeting between the two men for the weekend of April 4, if it comes off and wherever it comes off, offers Clinton a timely opportunity to underscore to the world the new relationship that now exists between the one remaining superpower and its recent Cold War rival. Clinton with an aid package in his hand, of whatever dimensions, has the chance to play democracy's white hat in the whole situation.
And if Yeltsin should ask him to go to Moscow rather than the scheduled Vancouver site, the new venue would be made to order for Clinton's people-to-people style.
A trip like that, barring any unforeseen trouble, would go a long way toward giving Clinton the foreign-policy credential he now lacks. The one thing he must avoid is a major diversion from the task that got him elected -- straightening out the economic mess at home.