ALMOST 56 YEARS after the Russians helped Hitler launch World War II, President Clinton is going to Moscow to celebrate V-E Day. As a moral gesture, his visit will be hollow and disquieting at best. It will be exploited by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who wants desperately to divert attention from the mass murder his government is committing in Chechnya. As with so much else the Clinton administration does abroad, the decision to spend May 9 in Moscow seems incoherent, one more product of a foreign policy that can't figure out what its principles are.
There is no denying that 20 million citizens of the former Soviet Union lost their lives in World War II. Without the deep suffering and sacrifices of the Russian people, the Allies could not have triumphed.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Behind him stand (left) German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and (right) Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
There is also no denying that Moscow had much to do with causing the war in the first place. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 triggered the occupation of Poland by both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army the following month. Germany and the USSR were allies for nearly two years, during which the Nazis conquered Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France and bombed much of London into rubble. At the same time, the Soviets invaded Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and waged terrible war against Finland. Not until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union did Moscow finally join the West.
Today's non-Communist regime in Moscow is not liable for Stalin's evil alliance of 1939, of course. But given Russia's role in starting World War II, and considering that Germany's defeat meant the onset of a 45-year Communist reign of terror in Eastern Europe, Clinton's determination to celebrate V-E Day in Moscow suggests a profound historical tone-deafness.
So what else is new?
When doesn't the Clinton team strike the wrong note? Lacking confidence in its own convictions, unanchored by any fixed foreign-policy principles, this administration is ever aflutter, constantly buffeted by political winds and unsure which way its priorities lie. Examples:
Somalia. Never having honed a strategy for "nation-building" or dealing with warlord violence, Clinton's advisers didn't foresee the massacre of US Rangers on Oct. 3, 1993 -- and couldn't withstand the domestic heat it generated. The result was panicky improvisation. US troops would leave Somalia, the president announced -- but they would wait until March 31. He seemed to think it would be irresponsible to abandon Somalia in the fall, but not to announce in the fall that we would abandon Somalia in the spring. That signaling a US readiness to give up on difficult commitments might be a grave mistake he seemed not to think about at all.
North Korea. In November 1993, Clinton vowed that "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb." Then the CIA decided Pyongyang might already have one or two nukes, and the administration backed down. As Jimmy Carter led the way, the White House agreed to forgo international inspections of North Korea's nuclear plants, allowed it to keep its 8,000 plutonium-rich fuel rods, promised to end trade restrictions on the totalitarian state, to supply it with two "peaceful" reactors plus 50,000 tons of oil, and to defer for years the dismantling of its nuclear weapons infrastructure. Message to the world's dictators: We speak loudly but carry a small stick.
Cuba. When Fidel Castro let a few thousand refugees flee his dungeon island and make for the United States last year, Clinton swore: "The Cuban government will not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigration policy." Whereupon he slammed shut a door that had been open to Cuban refugees for 28 years, ordered the boat people locked up, and negotiated a "deal" -- Castro would resume keeping Cubans from leaving Cuba. This week, yet another swerve: Boat people imprisoned at Guantanamo may enter the US; those risking their lives to flee Castro's hell will be forced back.
The inability of the Clinton administration to assert clear-cut US interests, or to take tough stands and defend them steadfastly, infects nearly every aspect of its foreign policy. Trade with China should be linked to human rights -- well, no, it shouldn't. Air strikes must be called in to protect the "safe zones" in Bosnia from Serb attacks -- well, no, our allies won't like it. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams fronts for terrorists -- well, no, now he's a "peacemaker."
Who can be surprised, then, that Clinton's Russia policy now amounts to little more than Yeltsin-right-or-wrong -- even as George Bush's amounted to little more than Gorbachev-right-or-wrong? Bleeding Chechnya -- 25,000 dead, murdered for the crime of resisting Russian imperialism -- strips Yeltsin of any moral authority to lead Russia and of any claim to US loyalty. He is a reformer no longer, perhaps not even a democrat. He is surrounded by a small circle of "War Party" militarists; there are fears he will cancel next year's election.
Amid all this comes Clinton on May 9, investing Yeltsin with legitimacy he doesn't deserve and boosting the War Party's image. Good for Yeltsin, maybe. But bad for Russia, bad for human rights and bad for the nation Clinton is supposed to lead.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)