WASHINGTON -- The last thing President Clinton needs right now is Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The surprising and menacing results of the parliamentary elections in Russia confront the president with a whole series of new questions about the direction of foreign policy.
Most obviously, the strong showing by the super-nationalist Zhirinovsky will make it far more difficult for Clinton to continue the reductions in the defense budget to help finance his domestic agenda.
Although Zhirinovsky is not in a controlling position, his wild talk about another Hiroshima or Chernobyl is certain to persuade many Americans they have more to worry about than the nuclear potential of North Korea. Given those election returns, who can imagine, for example, that Ukraine will quietly surrender the nuclear arsenal it controls?
Perhaps more important in the short range, however, is the problem Clinton faces in fashioning a policy toward Boris Yeltsin and the economic reforms he has been advocating and trying, however haltingly, to promulgate.
On the face of it, the threat to the reforms both from Zhirinovsky and the old-line communists argues for a more aggressive policy of providing aid to Yeltsin to force the process along. But the political reality is that foreign aid in general and aid to the former Soviet Union in particular are anathema to the American electorate. Opinion polls show that hostility toward aid to Russia is not likely to change.
At the same time, it is also clear that the United States and other Western powers have little option other than to try to prop up Yeltsin because the alternatives are so unpalatable. For Clinton, this could require considerable cost in political capital.
What Yeltsin's allies abroad need more than anything is evidence that the reforms are producing some positive change. But, again, the election results are likely to make that more difficult. It is already clear, for example, that private businesses encouraged to invest in Russia will have a more difficult time persuading their stockholders that is a wise course.
In the long run, the central imperative for the president is demonstrating an ability to deal with the new realities in Russia in a way that inspires confidence in the electorate.
The administration's faltering performance on Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti has projected the image of a young and inexperienced president who has not yet found his sea legs in foreign affairs. That image may be reinforced now by the spectacle of Vice President Al Gore being dispatched to Russia to celebrate Yeltsin's success and ending up obliged to paper over a sharp setback for the Russian president.
Opinion polls already show a lack of confidence in Clinton's handling of foreign policy, but it is a finding that has not been considered politically relevant so long as the president could keep the electorate's attention focused on such domestic concerns as health-care reform.
In the last few weeks Clinton has been able to do that, his position reinforced by his success in winning approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Unsurprisingly, the level approval of the president's performance has risen steadily as Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti have been pushed off the front pages and the television screens.
But presidents cannot choose the issues that will dominate the news, and Clinton has no choice except to deal with the new realities in Moscow. Although it is fair to say that Clinton will not be judged largely by foreign policy criteria -- assuming there is no direct threat to the United States -- it is equally fair to say that any president has to establish some minimum "comfort level" in the electorate about his ability to deal with foreign affairs.
The notion that presidents need vast experience in the international arena doesn't stand up to close examination. President Carter, a former governor of Georgia, brokered the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and President Reagan, a former governor of California, has been credited with forcing the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
No one expects the former governor of Arkansas to bring off a similar coup in Russia. But he does have to show some reassuring confidence in dealing with another complex issue he would rather have avoided.