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Clinton Aides Contend GOP Claim of Failed Moscow Talks

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post
KIEV, Ukraine

President Clinton's top foreign policy aides Thursday sharply disputed Republican contentions that this week's U.S.-Russian summit was a failure and accused the GOP of using issues "of fundamental importance to national security" simply to make political hay.

Clinton arrived here in Ukraine, an example of economic and democratic reform, after a rocky two-day Moscow summit in which he and Russian President Boris Yeltsin struggled through an agenda of contentious disagreements, most of which remained unresolved.

Even before Clinton left Moscow, Republican congressional leaders were dismissing the summit as unsuccessful and calling for a reexamination of U.S. aid to Russia and U.S. policy there.

Clinton advisers were eager to respond, moving quickly to shift the debate over administration policy toward Russia from a substantive one to a political one dismissible as a political ploy by Republicans.

As Clinton was being welcomed by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma at ceremonies in the courtyard of Mariinsky Palace, national security adviser Anthony Lake and press secretary Michael McCurry were questioning the legitimacy of GOP criticism and suggesting that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), was out of line in violating the unwritten rule that the opposition withholds criticism of a president while he is on foreign soil.

Lake, in a departure for national security advisers, who generally avoid partisan politics, said the United States benefits from its engagement with Russia and "to turn an issue of such fundamental importance to our national interest into a political issue and to see it made a political issue for the next 18 months could have profoundly negative consequences for our national security. I hope it does not happen."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher joined in the criticism with an allusion to Dole, who at 71 has stressed his maturity and experience in his GOP presidential campaign. Christopher, referring to officials of "my generation," said they traditionally followed "an old-fashioned custom" of leaving politics at the water's edge.

In response to Republican complaints that Clinton came away from the summit with no concessions on key issues from Yeltsin, Christopher cited as progress the Russian agreement to enter into a new structure for European security, the Russian decision to forgo the sale of nuclear centrifuge technology to Iran and a variety of arms agreement efforts. Scoring summits as wins and losses, he said, is "a relic of the Cold War" and should be abandoned as the United States and Russia move into a more regularized relationship.

Republicans have another view of the summit. Dole, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on foreign operations, and others said before Clinton left for Moscow that he had to persuade the Russians to cancel outright their agreement to sell nuclear reactors to Iran, to back off their opposition to the expansion eastward of NATO and to call a permanent cease-fire in Moscow's bloody battle over the breakaway region of Chechnya. None of those items was accomplished.

Dole said in a statement that the summit was a "failure," and McConnell said it was an "embarrassment to the administration that the president went to Moscow to watch a parade at Yeltsin's behest and brought nothing back." Dole's suggestion that U.S. aid should be reevaluated in light of the summit brought cries of disapproval from Christopher, Lake and McCurry.

McCurry lamented the lost tradition of "amicability" toward a president on foreign trips and said in mock sorrow, "I guess like so many things these days, those traditions of amicability are thrown out the window when politics roll around. That's unfortunate. It would have been nice for the majority leader to wait and get a briefing prior to making a rash judgment."

Clinton, who was making the first state visit here by a U.S. president, stayed out of the political fisticuffs, pointedly ignoring reporters' questions to respond to Dole's complaints. McCurry, asked for Clinton's response, said the president "met the question with stone-faced silence."

Compared with the rough going in his meetings with Yeltsin, Clinton had a smooth day here, where Ukrainian leaders adopted a policy of broad economic and security cooperation with the West, signaling their independence from Russia. Ukraine has met its agreements to shed the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet era and has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.