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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Critics Missed Clinton's Big Concession

The consensus of the American media backed up by the predictably partisan sneers of the Republicans, has been that Bill Clinton had a poor summit in Moscow.

"The Pushover Presidency," ran the headline over a vicious column which went on to ask: "Has there ever been a president who commanded less respect abroad, less fear, less compliance than Bill Clinton?"

Clinton's critics cite the unending war in Chechnya, the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran, and Yeltsin's enduring suspicion of any expansion of NATO. The Republicans have not been impressed by the concessions which Clinton won, cancelling the sale of the gas centrifuge and securing Yeltsin's agreement to join the Partnership for Peace.

The critics may be right, but if they are, it is for the wrong reason. The most significant single feature of the Clinton-Yeltsin talks was not Chechnya, Iran or NATO, but Clinton's acquiescence to a renegotiation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. And this received strikingly little attention.

The CFE was signed in 1990, and it is the legal core of the security system which has emerged after the Cold War. It imposes clear limits to the forces, and particularly the heavy weapons like tanks and artillery, which can be based in the various regions of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.

The Russians have repeatedly threatened to ignore the terms of this treaty in order to reinforce their troops in the Caucasus region. The immediate justification is the Chechnya war. The deeper motive is that the entire region, from the old Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, down to Turkey and Iran and Iraq and the restive Kurdish populations they all share, is chronically unstable and a serious security problem for Russia.

Acknowledging that Yeltsin had a legitimate concern with the CFE treaty limits in the region, Clinton agreed to renegotiate them, so long as Russia at least nominally respected the treaty terms. In effect, Clinton said that so long as Russia abided by the spirit of the treaty, the United States would conspire to help it breach its letter.

Such a compromise was probably inevitable, given Russia's security priorities. It may even be sensible, except that no serious case has yet been made by the administration to explain or justify this tampering with the crucial international treaty.

A license to permit more Russian forces in the region looks uncomfortably close to American acquiescence to a Russian sphere of influence. Consider also the interesting fact that the war in Tajikistan, and Russia's role in it, hardly rated a mention in the summit talks.

Contrast this with the personal effort Clinton invested last year in securing the final withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic republics and his repeated stress on the importance of Ukraine's sovereignty and independence. The policy signal from Washington is clear. Russia is actively discouraged from a sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe. In return, Russia gets a green light to play the dominant role in Central Asia and the Caucasus, whose energy reserves will make these two of the most strategically important areas on Earth well into the 21st century.

That is the implicit bargain of the Moscow summit. And Clinton may be right to have made it. But it will be hard to tell until we hear more than short-term sniping about the amount of fear and respect Clinton can inspire abroad.