Bill and Boris: a fragile friendship built on fear of something worse

It has been fascinating to see the way that the United States can become the prisoner of a single client
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The Independent Online
IN FORMAL terms, there is no such thing as the Clinton-Yeltsin Pact. No parliament has ever ratified such an instrument. Nor has any electorate ever been consulted upon it. There does exist a faintly worded "Partnership for Peace" agreement between Washington and Moscow, which is chiefly notable for giving Mr Yeltsin vague powers of discretion over the relationship between Eastern Europe and Nato. But that's it. None the less, the Pact does exist, and you can feel it. Its influence is made plain both by things that are said and done, and by things that are not said and done. In the post-Gulf war UN Security Council, and in the deliberations of the supposed European "Contact Group" on Bosnia-Herzegovina, a palpable Bill and Boris entente may be detected. The two former superpowers are now led respectively by their two weakest post-war presidencies: two great fleshy trunks of vast appetite and vanity, leaning upon each for support like a brace of rotting forest giants. Events on the forest floor are not unaffected by this light-blotting duo for, as we shall see, the Clinton- Yeltsin Pact has its victims.

In Washington, where it is understood at every level of the White House and State and Defense Departments, that Boris Yeltsin is "our man", the lazy analysis offered by most observers is that here, as in so many things, the Clinton-Gore team maintains continuity with Bush and Quayle. Actually, George Bush's National Security advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, became convinced quite early in the post-Gorbachev years that Yeltsin was a boorish, unstable good-for-nothing. We hardly know what headway this prescient diagnosis might have made. But the Clinton administration has been much more determinedly Russophile and Yeltsinista than its predecessor. One might point to the figure of Strobe Talbott, Clinton's Rhodes Scholar peer at Oxford, whose adherence to the Pact is a matter of doglike fealty and who, as Assistant Secretary of State, is freer than most to influence the hapless Warren Christopher.

It's often been fascinating in the past to see the way that a vast and powerful country like the United States can become the prisoner of a single client, a client whose mesmerising "strategic importance" is stressed with mantra-like insistence, and whose crimes and depredations are always excused because, if they are not, "worse may befall". There was the Shah, of course, and there remains General Mobutu and the House of Saud. But Boris tops the list. Two minor European capital cities - Sarajevo and Grozny - have been sacrificed to him already. And there is no sign that these slightly unpromising examples have impelled any kind of high-level reconsideration. This is probably because, in the paradoxical way that such unspoken or surreptitious commitments get made, the American superpower becomes a prisoner not of the strength of the client, but of his weakness.

Here's how the argument plays out. Clinton comes to power, pledges to do something to arrest Bush's policy of drift in the Balkans. Then a few Moscow summits kick in. All at once, it seems more soothingly "presidential" to show sensitivity to supposed "Slavic" or "Eastern Orthodox" solidarity. This is a testing time for our man in Moscow; if we are tough on Belgrade it will increase his difficulties. And of course - this bit is always indispensable - if the moderates fail then the extremists are waiting ("in the wings" naturally) for their moment. If not Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Zhirinovsky... Never mind for now that the smarter Russian diplomats and military officers were correctly reporting that Milosevic was not as strong as he looked, and of Messrs Karadzic and Mladic that they were well across the borderline which demarcates the clinical from the pathological. The actual policy that was followed drew applause only from - Vladimir Zhirinovsky! The logic, therefore, is almost perfectly self-negating. Instead of making "concessions" to the "moderates" to short-circuit the "extremists" (the terminology is official) concessions must be made to the extremists to rescue the moderates. This was the method of Oliver North in Tehran, doing covertly for the mullahs what his predecessors had done for the Shah.

The ruins of Grozny and the wasteland of Chechnya tell the same story. Yeltsin's authority and "credibility" were at risk, so that he had to be allowed to do, to a civilian population including many ethnic Russians, what Zhirinovsky would never have been permitted to do. And, once again, Zhirinovsky was Yeltsin's only public support and protector - except once again for the Clintonites. Was it Clive, or was it Warren Hastings who professed astonishment in the consequences of moderation? Given Yeltsin's humiliation in his own home district last week, and given the general humiliation that he has wrought upon himself and his countrymen in the past Potemkin year, might it be asking too much to detach the label of "moderate" from this most capricious and violent of men? It will at least save us some hollow laughs round the post-mortem table.

Nothing will convince the Clintonoids that the boy-president and his Washington entourage are not, by definition, bang in the tactical centre that exists between any two extreme or even definable positions. Clinton hopes to be re-elected in the same mode as he has governed - as a moderate Republican and master of consensus. Does anybody ever tug at his sleeve and remind him that Sarajevo and Grozny were shelled and emptied and blackened on the grounds that their populations were Muslim and "fundamentalists"? Does it occur to him that even the most "moderate" Muslim is unlikely to regard this is as other than extreme? What do his intelligence advisors convey to him? Do they warn him what he can never remember, that the Islamic world can never forget?

The nerve of outrage and alarm has been dulled in America itself by the shared conviction that, say what you will about the cynicism of the policy, at least it avoids casualties. This has so far been self- evident, as long as you don't think Muslim casualties count. There have been American body bags all the same. Fred Cuny, the big, courageous Texan who disappeared in Chechnya and whose murder was confirmed last week, gave his whole life to disproving the falsehood that Middle America doesn't care about the rest of the world. He was one of the sheet anchors of the indispensable organisation Human Rights Watch. His last essay, in the New York Review of Books, was a graphic and moving account of Russia's hopeless and foul attempt to "pacify" the Caucasus. It seems certain, according to his family, that his shaken and paranoid Chechen captors were told by Russian intelligence that he was a disposable spy.

I don't remember a case of any American citizen, let alone one so valourous and distinguished, being done to death in foreign parts with so little comment from official Washington. Fred Cuny was a victim of the Clinton- Yeltsin Pact, just as surely as the poor unprotected American diplomats who went down the heavily mined slope outside Sarajevo last week, on the ignoble mission of persuading the Bosnians to surrender to a great-power partition. History may not be an actor on its own stage, though it is often summoned to issue condemnations in the last act. I do not think that the Bill-Boris axis will last long enough to earn anything so grand. Czar, after all, has the same root as Shah in the word Caesar.

Christopher Hitchens writes the Cultural Elite column for `Vanity Fair'. Neal Ascherson is on holiday.