Leading Article: Why backing good guys is a risky business

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The Independent Online
Why backing good guys is a risky business

Wouldn't it be nice if the candidates in foreign elections divided neatly into goodies and baddies? Watching the democratic elections in Israel this week and Russia next month we could cheer loudly for our heroes, and hiss their evil opponents. If, after the event, the good guys turned out not to be so marvellous after all, we could shrug our shoulders. The contest would be simple, the drama entertaining, and we would remain safe in the knowledge that the views of a few Brits were irrelevant to the outcome anyway.

The Americans can't duck their responsibility so easily. For all their ambivalence they remain unrivalled international peace-keepers. While it is easy to be cynical about the agenda behind its foreign policy, America's support for liberal democracy in Russia and peace in the Middle East has been genuine enough. However, its approach to the forthcoming elections in both countries may prove mistaken. In both cases, the US seems surprisingly keen to identify good guys and back them to the hilt, no matter what the long-term risks to Western interests.

In Russia our hero is cuddly Boris. Yes, he drinks, yes, his health is dodgy, yes, he tolerates corruption and cronyism, and his commitment to democracy is suspect. Still, Yeltsin's economic reforms have been brave and far-reaching, and may be about to pay off. Russia is now a relatively liberal country, at peace with its seceded neighbours.

By contrast, his leading opponent - the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov - is a scary prospect. With a nasty anti-Semitism never far from the surface, many of Zyuganov's fellow travellers stray often into the language of Russian expansionism and neo-nationalism. Little wonder then that the presidents of former Soviet states (including Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze) have been so quick and so keen to endorse Boris Yeltsin.

It is no surprise either that the US and the EU should be hoping for a Yeltsin re-election, given the repercussions throughout Nato and Eastern Europe if Zyuganov were to win. Thanks to US support, Russia has benefited in the past few months from an IMF loan worth $10.2bn and the rescheduling of Russian debt. Clinton's personal appearance at international conferences will have promoted Yeltsin's image as an international statesman. Meanwhile, the US has refrained from exacerbating Yeltsin's domestic political troubles over the disastrous Chechen war.

But there are risks in this strategy. For a start, Zyuganov might still win - leaving Western diplomacy badly wrong-footed. The volatile opinion polls are still close. But even if Yeltsin wins, the West will have tolerated and endorsed an awful lot of Russian boot stamping to make it happen. To win back those floating voters, Yeltsin has expelled British spies, promised huge welfare handouts he cannot finance, and even - it is rumoured - contemplated secret compromises with the neo-nationalists. Yesterday's declaration of a ceasefire in Chechnya should not detract from the appalling violence and disregard for human rights in the Russian campaign. For the sake of future relations with Russia, the US needs to be wary of giving Yeltsin the idea that it will give and tolerate anything to keep him in power.

Unfortunately the same pattern is emerging in the US approach to the Israeli elections. The hero in Israel - the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - has already been shot. His Labour party colleague, and architect of the Middle East peace process, Shimon Peres, has inherited the mantle of US support, as well as the country's interim leadership. But the vehemence of the American endorsement may also prove to have been a mistake.

Compared with his main opponent Mr Netanyahu, Mr Peres is the good guy. Peres remains committed to the Oslo accord, allowing gradual self-rule for the Palestinians and providing the best chance for peace in the Middle East for years. Were the hard-line Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party to be elected (polls suggest this is possible) the Olso accord would rapidly collapse, and with it Yasser Arafat's credibility with his people, having stuck his neck out for the accord. Bleak prospects.

Hence the wholehearted support from the US for Israel under Peres. Recent bus-bombings by Palestinian extremists ignited Israeli fears for their security and rocked Peres's support. So when, to bolster his domestic political position, Peres launched attacks on southern Lebanon and bombed innocent civilians in Qana, the US did not bat an eyelid.

Not only was the US endorsing atrocities, it was also undermining the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East. True, Oslo may collapse if Peres is not elected, but at this rate it will also collapse if he is. The bombing alienated Palestinians who were otherwise prepared to negotiate, and removed any possibility for the US to play the "honest broker" role in further mediations.

In the Russian and the Israeli elections, the West is right to hope for the victory of particular candidates. But the US should beware elevating its preferred candidate to the good guy who (at least up until the election) can do no wrong.

Such short-termism in US foreign policy has a whiff of domestic electioneering about it, too. Regardless of long-term prospects for peace and stability Bill Clinton is most concerned to prevent a return to Communism in Russia and the collapse of the Oslo accord before November's US presidential elections. A high-profile foreign policy failure would hand ammunition to the Republicans.

Ultimately in the US, in Israel and in Russia, politicians good and bad are all dancing in anticipation of the wishes of their electorates. And as we may yet discover in Britain to our cost, governments desperate to stay in power are easily tempted to manipulate the more unpleasant sentiments and anxieties among their voters. Such are the perils and privileges of democracy.