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Christopher Arrives in Russia With 'Hope and Reassurance'

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times


Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived Thursday to give a U.S. vote of confidence to President Boris N. Yeltsin at the opening of Russia's parliamentary election campaign -- and, his aides hoped, to focus Americans' attention on a country where the Clinton administration's foreign policy has enjoyed some visible success.

Christopher said he hoped to give Russians "some sense of hope and reassurance" that their new democracy can succeed; he is scheduled to make a speech that will be a virtual endorsement of Yeltsin only seven weeks before the country's parliamentary elections, set for Dec. 12.

But even in Eastern Europe, which he visited before coming to Moscow, the secretary of state was dogged by questions about some of the reverses that the administration has suffered in recent weeks in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

On his way across the Atlantic, Christopher spent several hours on the telephone talking with members of the Senate, asking for their votes to beat back Republican attempts to limit President Clinton's freedom of maneuver in Haiti.

And in Budapest, Hungary, he was hit with tough questions from members of the American Chamber of Commerce, an audience that normally might have been gentler.

"I, as an American, am confused about ... the United States' foreign policy and its apparent incohesiveness," said Alex Benko, a commercial real estate developer from Dallas who has been working in Hungary for four years. "Nobody in the world seems to understand what our missions are."

He asked Christopher, "What plans do you have ... (to) put meat behind some of the words that apparently don't have any meat behind them?"

"That's a challenging question, isn't it?" Christopher responded mildly, and then launched into a now-familiar defense of the administration's efforts.

"We've been dealing with three inherited problems, three problems that we found on our plate when we came into office ... and that's what you see in the headlines," Christopher said, referring to Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.

"It's those three inherited problems, I think, that create the impression of a United States foreign policy where there's room for improvement -- and I certainly concede that there's always room for improvement," he said.

"But on the main issues -- on the big issues where our vital interests are definitely involved -- I think the United States has been positive and has been successful," he said, citing Clinton's support for Yeltsin and his work on the Middle East peace talks.

Benko, who described himself as a conservative, appeared unimpressed. "We have such an inept foreign policy, people are laughing at us," he said.

Other members of the audience were less critical, though, and gave Christopher warm applause.

Still, the episode reflected a phenomenon that has frustrated and distressed Christopher and his aides: No matter what they do on problems they consider "big issues," their difficulties in small countries get what they consider excessive attention.

When Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind., called for Christopher's resignation earlier this week, they dismissed the idea -- and complained privately that television networks had even mentioned it in their newscasts.

Christopher should get a better reception here. The Clinton administration has organized an international aid effort amounting to more than $43 billion in pledges and stood staunchly by Yeltsin earlier this month as he dismissed his Parliament and sent troops to blast his opponents out of their headquarters.

Christopher was scheduled to meet with Yeltsin Friday, and said he hoped to learn about plans for the election, which U.S. officials openly hope will elect a solidly pro-Yeltsin Parliament to replace the dissolved conservative-led Congress of People's Deputies.

In a departure from usual practice, Christopher's schedule does not include meetings with any political figures outside Yeltsin's inner circle. Secretaries of state often meet with leaders of democratic opposition groups during their travels, especially during election campaigns.