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A world leader in need of luck

THREE DAYS before leaving for Moscow, President Bill Clinton spoke at a service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King's great civil rights march on Washington. He steered clear of co- opting King's celebrated "I have a dream..." speech on the eve of his long-planned trip to Russia and Ireland,

"I have a nightmare..." would have been nearer the mark.

Put yourself, just once, in the President's place as Air Force One left Andrews Air Force base outside Washington yesterday and consider the risks. Suppose you are more than 10 hours into your 12-hour flight to Moscow and have just crossed into Russian airspace. The VIP corridor is cleared for your approach to the capital. You are handed an urgent message. Unconfirmed reports from Moscow say that Boris Yeltsin has just resigned. You do not know whether he has been forcibly removed, genuinely changed his mind since Friday or suffered a heart attack.

Minutes later, there is a new message, this time from the acting Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, passed on by the State Department in Washington: "I am looking forward to receiving you in Moscow. The programme for your visit remains substantially in place."

Another 10 minutes and a new message, this one from the Treasury via the White House: Russia has announced it is defaulting on all its international obligations: the interests of the Russian people are paramount.

You are now well into Russian airspace. You have no certainty about who is in charge at your destination. Your options are limited. You can believe Mr Chernomyrdin's reassurance and proceed with your visit, hoping it is he, or the Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who meets you at the airport and not some Communist you have never heard of or, worse still, some uniformed strong-man who claims to be in control. Maybe you could change the venue: invite Mr Chernomyrdin to Helsinki. On second thoughts, he has a country to run.

You emerge from Air Force One for the first time in your presidency uncertain about what awaits.