President Clinton's ill-conceived trip to Moscow is inadvertently demonstrating an old and important lesson: There's a distinction between foreign policy and presidential travel. You can have one without the other.
Merely sojourning abroad does not mean necessarily that a president is doing something important about America's relations with the rest of the world. And, by contrast, a president can stay in Washington and still accomplish great things in foreign policy. (Example: Harry S. Truman)
Watch or listen to Clinton's current trip to Russia, and you can't help but question the wisdom of his decision to go there now.
The administration's sermons that Russia should continue the process of reform sound stale to American ears and are, no doubt, infuriating to ordinary Russians. The president's speech Tuesday to Russia's "next generation" was greeted by a mixture of stony faces and cynical smiles.
"We will be affected by what you do, and you will be affected by what we do," Clinton told the young Russians. Such airy cliches were neither welcome nor comforting at a time when Russia is devastated by the flight of foreign investors and turmoil in Russian markets has helped trigger a nose dive of the U.S. stock market.
Those who defend the current trip say that canceling it would have dealt a heavy blow to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. But Yeltsin is a spent force anyway. Clinton's one last embrace of Yeltsin can't do much good for American interests.
Encouraging Russia to "stay on the path of reform" doesn't help either. "For most Russians, it will mean that America welcomes what has happened to their country and does not care about their ruined lives," wrote Russian expert Stephen P. Cohen of New York University in The Nation magazine this week.
Did it have to be this way? Couldn't Clinton at least have postponed the trip for a few weeks, until events in Russia settled down? What could Clinton achieve in Moscow at a time when Russia doesn't even have a government?
Consider, as a counter-example, the way China has handled a problem similar to the one the Clinton administration faced.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin was supposed to visit both Russia and Japan in early September. But 10 days ago, China announced that the visits were being postponed. Jiang needed to stay home, it was said, to deal with the floods in his country.
Sure, those floods are a pressing emergency. But it seems likely that Jiang canceled these trips after he got a decent reading from Chinese officials in both Moscow and Tokyo that now is not the best time to try to do serious business with either of these two hobbled governments.
"It's just that all three countries involved--China, Japan and Russia--are experiencing problems at the moment, and it seemed sensible to wait a bit," said one Chinese scholar in explaining Jiang's decision.
(Is Jiang really grappling with the floods? Probably so, but not full time: According to the Chinese press, Jiang and other top Chinese leaders have just had an extensive working session in Beijing to review China's foreign policy. Clinton might have followed this example.)
In trying to justify his Moscow excursion, Clinton suggested this week that traveling abroad means international involvement, while working in the United States is akin to ignoring what's happening overseas.
"The reason I'm going to Russia is because we have learned the hard way that problems that develop beyond our borders sooner or later find their way to our doorstep unless we help our friends and our neighbors to deal with them as quickly and promptly as possible," the president explained.
This is one of Clinton's favorite rhetorical techniques, the false dichotomy: setting up a choice that, when you really think about it, doesn't answer anything.
On American policy toward China, he set up a dichotomy of engagement or isolation, which doesn't help explain how to handle problems, such as arms proliferation and Taiwan. On Russia, he now asks us to choose between his traveling to Moscow or having Russia's problems come back to America.
What could Clinton be doing on foreign policy if he had stayed home? Plenty.
He could be lobbying in Washington or even campaigning around the United States for passage of the bill to provide new emergency funds for the International Monetary Fund. He could lead a review of American policy in dealing with the international financial crisis.
In a way, Clinton has come full circle. When he first came to the White House, he didn't want to devote his energies to foreign policy at all. In late 1995, he canceled a trip to Asia to deal with a government shutdown at home.
Now, by contrast, Clinton seems to be turning to foreign travel as a diversion--not just from his own political troubles at home, as the cynics say, but, more important, from his administration's lack of initiatives on either domestic or foreign policy.
Usually, after Clinton returns home from a foreign trip, his administration shifts focus from the country he visited. The administration has done virtually nothing about China since Clinton returned home two months ago.
This time, when Clinton comes home from Moscow, maybe his administration can try to figure out what to do about Russia's future and the deepening financial crisis overseas. Meeting with Yeltsin wasn't the answer.
Jim Mann's column appears here on Wednesdays.