Clinton under fire from all sides over WWII ceremonies

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In its dealings with old allies and enemies alike, the Clinton administration is finding that the theoretically happy event of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Second World War are a diplomatic minefield in which somebody's feelings are bound to be offended.

The immediate problem is Russia, where a place on the Red Square review podium has long been reserved for the President on 9 May when Russia, which as part of the former Soviet Union lost as many lives in the European conflict as every other combatant combined, will celebrate victory in the "Great Patriotic War". Whether the President will be there, however, is a greater mystery than ever.

Until just a few days ago it seemed certain he would not. Whatever the offence to the Russians, it was outweighed by fear of any gesture that might signal Washington's approval of the onslaught against Chechnya and of President Yeltsin's increasingly erratic behaviour.

Now, however, the White House is indicating nothing has been settled and Mr Clinton could indeed be in Moscow in May. Despite powerful objections on Capitol Hill, the President is being urged by other advisers to go, with a schedule that underlines US backing for Russia's beleaguered reformers.

They also argue that keeping open the prospect of a May visit could induce other concessions, including a softening of Moscow's opposition to Nato enlargement. But if Moscow, why not also Paris and London, also commemorating victory?

On current plans, Vice-President Al Gore will lead the US delegation to the ceremonies in London on 6 and 7 May. But, diplomats point out, if Mr Clinton heads to Moscow two days later, he would be obliged to stop over in the country which was Washington's closest wartime ally - or risk another perceived snub to rank alongside the welcome accorded Gerry Adams.

Meanwhile, commemorations of victory in the Pacific war are also posing problems. Earlier this month Tokyo let it be known it had received assurances from the US that the term "V-J Day" would never again pass the lips of US officialdom. Why, after all, should Japan be singled out, when the term "V-E Day" did not mention Nazi Germany?

Predictably,the disclosure provoked little short of fury among conservatives and veterans groups here. Thus the tortured language of Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, recently when he insisted that "no specific rule on nomenclature" had been adopted - meaning that US officials will probably no longer use the term while being free to do so, and that when President Clinton attends ceremonies in Honolulu on 2 September, the 50th anniversary of Japan's formal surrender, he will speak merely of "the end of the war". In that case, Britain would be alone in its celebration of "V-J Day" on 19 and 20 August.