Baker Abroad

IN meetings with United States Secretary of State James Baker this week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to accept US aid in dismantling nuclear weapons, and he proposed a dramatic acceleration of nuclear disarmament in tandem with the US. With Russia flat on its back economically, these were not surprising outcomes of Mr. Baker's trip to the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, they are further welcome steps in lowering the nuclear threshold between what are still the only nuclear superpowers.

Baker's trip - actually two trips, one to Russia and one to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia - was largely a matter of diplomatic housekeeping, and of pushing ahead with plans discussed between Mr. Yeltsin and President Bush at Camp David.

After a cold reception by Yeltsin last week, Baker worked well with the Russian leader during Kremlin talks Monday. Baker, reaching into a $400 million fund provided by Congress last year, promised $25 million in aid for a center to employ dangerously idle former Soviet nuclear scientists. He also made plans to send 25 special rail cars and 250 containers to house and safeguard nuclear weapons being transported and dismantled.

With his staff bending over backward to give away the nuclear shop, Yeltsin slipped in another request for $600 million in grain credits he told Baker were needed by April. This puts heat on the White House for the first time to make Yeltsin their man. Given the alternatives, they should do so. They should come up with some part of the money - for now.

The agreement for a Bush-Yeltsin summit in July could steal some thunder from the Democratic convention, and its nominee, who will almost assuredly be someone with less foreign policy experience than Mr. Bush.

Baker's trip to Central Asia was a different matter. The trip was an effort to make amends for not sending diplomats right away and for treating these states as second class. He was only modestly successful. The politics of Central Asia are extremely complex, and if these states didn't seem ready for Baker, neither did he seem ready for them. He made a number of faux pas, including telling reporters that the roots of Islam did not go very deep in Central Asia. And he hinted at one point that blocking Ira nian influence in the region was the main US strategic interest - not something to say even if you think it.

By wedging his trip to Central Asia between two visits to Moscow, Baker unwittingly sent a message to these states that the US thinks of them as second-tier, "the Muslims." This may seem a small matter to a superpower. But who needs to start grudges?

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