REPUBLICANS IN Congress have announced several inquiries into Clinton administration policy toward Russia. These could be useful, for many legitimate questions arise from the vexed state of U.S.-Russian relations and the disappointing performance of Russia's post-Soviet economy. Among these are whether too much aid was given, or too little; whether stricter conditions could have been set on such grants, and whether they would have mattered; whether U.S. policy put too much faith in Boris Yeltsin, and whether U.S. policy makers naively underestimated the difficulty of Russia's transition.
Unfortunately, last week's launching of the inquiries did not inspire much confidence. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, for example, had already drawn his conclusion: "The Clinton administration's Russian policy is the greatest foreign policy failure since Vietnam." This is a sweeping view, and not just when you consider some of the other possible nominees: the failure to deter Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and his acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, the spread of nuclear arms to India and Pakistan, the standing aside while a million Rwandans were slaughtered, and so on.
Mr. Armey's judgment seems to assume that Russia is doomed, and that the United States is primarily responsible; the former is premature at least, and the latter too respectful of U.S. influence. A sense of historical proportion seemed similarly absent when Rep. James Leach, chairman of the Banking Committee, wrote in a New York Times article on "The New Russian Menace" that constraining corruption "may well prove more difficult" than defeating Communism.
"We're likely to continue to face a Russian security threat for another generation," says Mr. Armey. But what kind of threat? Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not militarily threatening U.S. allies or seriously challenging U.S. power anywhere in the world. Unlike China, which all summer has been brazenly menacing democratic Taiwan, Russia poses no danger to any neighbor. On the contrary, it is having great difficulty keeping its own country together.
To the extent Russia is a threat today, in other words, the source is the nation's weakness, not its strength. There is no longer much fear that Russia will send hundreds of nuclear-tipped ICBMs hurtling toward North America in a deliberate first-strike attack; but there is real concern about an accidental launch due to computer malfunction, or of a nuclear warhead smuggled out due to poverty and lax controls. Russian corruption is a threat like Mexican corruption or Indonesian corruption, all of which work against the democracy and prosperity that the United States hopes will spread. But given the minuscule size of the Russian economy, its corruption can hardly threaten the American way of life. The corruption of the Chinese economy, which is far more intertwined with America's, would seem to pose a greater danger. But it is receiving considerably less attention right now.
Russia's most recent calamity is a series of apartment-building bombings that have claimed nearly 300 lives. Remembering Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, Americans know that every society is vulnerable to terrorism. But such heartland bombings may be even more terrifying for Russians, because they have -- with good reason -- such little faith in their law enforcement agencies. Moreover, the inevitable push for Draconian response threatens civil liberties that have shallower roots in Russian soil.
The natural response to all these dangers would be to help alleviate Russia's weakness. That no one, including certainly the Clinton administration, has a foolproof strategy for doing so is painfully clear, and congressional advice would be welcome on how from the outside to promote stability and prosperity. But imposing sanctions and cutting off ties will produce the opposite result, and inflating the menace beyond reality will impede clear-headed decision making.