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Clinton's bum knee may be bended for Yeltsin

It's probably too late to change it, but there's a decent argument to be made that this week's U.S.-Russia summit should be in Bermuda _ or even Bethesda, Md., instead of Helsinki, Finland.

If I remember correctly, the whole idea of choosing Finland for the summit talks this Wednesday and Thursday was to make it easy on Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president who is still not completely back up to speed after a heart bypass operation last fall. When the Russians said Yeltsin shouldn't have to travel so far in his weakened condition, we settled on Helsinki because it's a short hop and a skip from St. Petersburg, Russia's old imperial capital.

So now we have President Clinton with a bum knee, hobbling around on crutches and in no shape for hops or skips of any kind, even short ones. Nevertheless, the Russians still expect him to fly all the way to Helsinki, which isn't a bad place except that it's not all that far from the Arctic Circle, this still happens to be winter and it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit there the other day.

But Clinton, ever the trouper, vowed after his knee surgery Friday that he would go to Helsinki anyway because the thing he wants to talk over with Yeltsin is so important.

That thing, lest we forget, is the planned expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

Discussing NATO, with all the jargon about military force levels and those obscure rivers and hills in Central Europe (throw weight, Oder, Neisse, Urals, etc.), is tedious, I know. But it happens to be vitally important when what's at stake is setting up a new post-Cold War security system for the United States and its allies.

And that, boiled down to the essentials, is exactly what's at stake. By enlarging NATO to include two, possibly three, former members of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact, Washington and its allies will be building a new framework that will shape Western security, foreign policy and probably even economics for the next decade or two.

If Clinton gets this one right, the dismal foreign policy record of his first term will be forgotten. He'll be a hero like Chancellor Helmut Kohl after reuniting East and West Germany.

If he gets it wrong, the president is likely to be one of history's losers like Mikhail Gorbachev after the Soviet Union fell apart.

So bum leg notwithstanding, Clinton wants to go to Helsinki to have another crack at persuading Yeltsin that a bigger NATO, one extending right up to the Russian frontier, is no threat to his country's interests.

Now the president is a good talker. We all know he can charm the birds right out of the trees. But getting Boris Yeltsin to believe it's okay to have NATO troops in Poland, right on the Russian border, is beyond even Bill Clinton's talents.

The best he can do, and he has been working at it for months now, is to offer Yeltsin enough concessions on the side that Moscow won't do anything too awful and drastic when NATO leaders meet in July to announce which countries will be the new members.

Basically, Clinton is promising that nuclear weapons won't be deployed in the territory of new members, that NATO might be willing to reduce the number of tanks, helicopters and other conventional weapons it has in Europe and that Washington would be agreeable to lower limits on intercontinental missiles and warheads in a new overall nuclear weapons reduction treaty.

The idea is that Yeltsin could hold up these concessions before his hard-liners to keep them from flying off the handle when NATO expands from its current 16 members by admitting Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or maybe even Romania and Slovenia.

It's worth noting here that getting Yeltsin and the Russian hard-liners to go along with NATO expansion is only part of the problem. Clinton also has to sell the idea to the U.S. Congress, many of whose members worry about how much all this is going to cost.

So last month, the administration came out with a study estimating that overall NATO expansion would cost no more than $35-billion over the next 12 years. The U.S. share of this was put at $2-billion tops _ roughly the price of two B-2 Stealth bombers.

Most experts I've heard from think that estimate is way too low, that the real price might add up to the equivalent of seven or eight Stealth bombers instead. Even so, that's not even close to some of the scary numbers opponents of NATO expansion have been floating around.

The arguments over cost are complicated and, no doubt, will go on for quite a while even after NATO expansion is well under way.

In any case, these are the topics Clinton hopes to be talking over with Yeltsin later this week in Helsinki _ assuming, of course, that his recovery from knee surgery stays on track.

But even if all goes well, a long flight to Helsinki so soon after surgery is going to be tough, even for a jogger like the president. It would have been much more convenient, not to mention pleasant, to deal with all this business in a place like Bermuda or Bethesda, the Maryland suburb where Clinton got his knee operation.