The Gorbachev-Yeltsin standoff in Moscow tempts Washington to make a choice between them. But they are both good men, and maybe we don't have to choose. We need instead to ask: What do we want from whoever is in charge, anyway?

A strong international partner? Mikhail Gorbachev is, as George Kennan argues in Foreign Affairs, a commanding international figure whose eclipse by Boris Yeltsin would jolt everyone. But it need not follow that the Soviet Union's eclipse by Russia, and even the spinoff of lesser republics, would altogether remove a now-welcome and stabilizing world player from the board. True, it would add some clutter at the old Soviet empire's fringes. But with or without the company of other confederated republics, Russia would remain the biggest country anywhere, a nuclear power, bruised but in some ways stronger for the shakeout.

The territorial and structural status quo? If this is our priority, then Gorbachev is for us. He's a reformer but also a centralizer, in that sense a direct heir to Lenin and the last Soviet man. Perhaps he'll let the Baltics go, with suitable growls to pacify the conservatives, but he's struggling to find a formula of controlled devolution to keep the other republics in the union. His tendency in economic reform is to retain key reins in Moscow. The trouble is, his centralizing bent may yet undercut the political strength he needs to stay on the world stage.

Democracy? If our priority lies here, then, after a point, Gorbachev is not for us. You can't have democracy and the current Soviet borders too, because these borders confine many would-be nations against their will. Democracy tends to nourish not just administrative decentralization but national disintegration. Moreover, Gorbachev has yet to submit his political fate directly to the people. Meanwhile, Yeltsin speaks clearly for the sort of democracy associated with both popular choice and republic sovereignty. He's the real Russian. Much more clearly than Gorbachev, he speaks for a Communist Party-free political culture.

In the old days it was easy to compose American attitudes. Such scattered signs of ethnic or republic assertiveness as emerged in public view we hailed as just and deserving, but these did not rise to the level of great political concern to the Russian-dominated, centrally run Soviet state. In this way did American policy come to be marked by a certain airiness: in the name of anti-communism we annually memorialized "captive nations" including some -- Idel-Ural, Cossackia -- whose names and locations we didn't even know.

Nowadays, the Bush administration is near, if not precisely on, a middle course. It is sympathetic, in a manner it intends the Kremlin to read as non-threatening, to Soviet elements of democracy and self-determination. Representatives of these elements, including Yeltsin, are offered a range of contacts and other encouragements. As a show of good faith in the special case of the Baltics, American economic openness is conditioned on Soviet restraint. Moscow is living surprisingly well with a degree of American pushiness that would have curdled relations in the past.

Still, the administration scarcely conceals its favor for the person and policy of Gorbachev. Despite his eroding authority and the competition of new actors, he represents to Washington a familiar and respected face and a promise of a cooperative or at least predictable approach to major international issues. The demands of state-to-state affairs give him a dominance in American political practice that Yeltsin, necessarily operating below the line where he would have regular business with the West, cannot expect to match.

American relations with the republics on one level and with people like Yeltsin on another now seem to be proceeding without much static. On both levels, there is a lingering impatience and suspicion that the United States may be too ready to equate republic sovereignty with disorder and chaos and too eager to please Gorbachev. But these feelings do not inhibit administration policy.

Ambitious notions circulate that the United States has it within its power by deft gestures to save Gorbachev or to anoint Yeltsin, to steer the republics toward a safe sovereignty or to coach the Soviet nation in the ways of an enlightened American or (more likely) Canadian federalism. Not so. Our reach is more modest: to do our business in Moscow and to try to comprehend as best we can the political revolution still unfolding there. That's plenty.