WASHINGTON — Attend a couple of the high-level administration briefings on the upcoming Clinton-Putin meeting in Moscow, and you'll come away with a new phenomenon that might be called "negative hype." The emphasis is on lowering expectations. You're admonished not to expect progress on arms control, not even to call this a "summit," but rather a "get-acquainted meeting," although the presidents are already acquainted, having met last September at the Asian-Pacific summit in New Zealand. There Putin found Clinton to be, "a charming person, a sincere person, open and friendly," he says in his autobiography, "In Person."
At the meeting this weekend, there will be talk of economic reform and sustaining democracy, with a Clinton appeal not to harass the free press.
There will also be the ritualistic appeal to minimize the killing in rebellious Chechnya.
On that, Clinton may get a nonritualistic answer. In the run-up to the summit - oops, meeting - the Kremlin was putting out the line that the Chechen insurgents are being supported by the militant Afghan Taliban and by Osama bin Laden, who is No. 1 on America's most-wanted terrorist list. The Russian Defense Ministry said that last week Russian planes attacked a convoy of arms headed for Chechnya, escorted by 80 Taliban guerrillas.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that a bombing raid on Afghanistan is not to be excluded.
You can see where this leads. The United States carried out a cruise missile attack on Afghanistan in September 1998, in an unsuccessful attempt to hit bin Laden's headquarters. Bin Laden has been linked to bombings of two American embassies in Africa and other terrorist acts. Putin has declared war on the Taliban, which has endorsed "the righteous cause of the Chechens." Russian sources say that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov met two weeks ago with bin Laden, who promised, in a written agreement, to send up to 100 Islamic guerillas to Chechnya. Putin has also given a security guarantee to Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic said to be menaced by Taliban encroachment.
If you accept the Russian line, Putin and Clinton shouldn't be arguing about Chechnya, but making common cause against a common foe. How Clinton will respond to that is not clear. But working together against the Afghanistan-based terrorists has a certain appeal for American officials.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society