Vladimir Putin has started his elected term as president. Bill Clinton is near the end of his. And once again, the lame duck problem threatens to bedevil the conduct of American foreign policy.
In May 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev closed down relations with President Eisenhower after the shooting down of an American spy plane and the subsequent Khrushchev walkout from the four-power Paris summit. Later, Khrushchev told President Kennedy he would have campaigned for him or against him, whichever would have helped Kennedy more.
But the seven months of deep freeze were a perilous time when the Soviets threatened a Berlin crisis and shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba.
In 1968, President Johnson counted himself out for reelection and the Nixon campaign committee took full advantage of that. Fearing that Johnson might hand them an "October Surprise" in the form of a cease-fire in Vietnam, Nixon had word sent to Saigon that South Vietnam would get a better deal if it waited for Nixon to be elected. That effectively made Johnson a lame duck, and peace in Vietnam was delayed.
In 1980, the Reagan campaign feared that President Carter might pull off an "October Surprise" by getting Iran to release the American Embassy hostages.
There were reports, never confirmed and indeed hotly denied, that the Republicans asked the Iranians to hold up release of the hostages. It is a fact, however, that the Iranians did delay the release until the exact moment of Reagan's inauguration.
Now, again, there are signs of lame duckery in the air. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, on a trip to Washington, makes sure to meet with Gov. George W. Bush. A delegation of Russian legislators meets with Republican members of Congress, and they agree that no new arms- control deals should be struck with the Clinton administration. Sen. Jesse Helms reinforces that by saying that any new Clinton treaty will be "dead on arrival" in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On June 4, President Clinton arrives in Moscow for a summit meeting with President Putin. Clinton would like to overcome Russian resistance to amending the Antiballistic Missile Treaty so that the US can deploy a limited antimissile system.
But both of them know that the Republicans have cut the ground from under Clinton's feet.
At home in Russia, the Putin era opens on a note of ambiguity, underlined by his inaugural address. From the bridge, Capt. Putin charted a course for a Russia "free and flourishing," with respect for human and civil rights.
Below decks, in the boiler room, the boys of Putin's old KGB, now the FSB, were charting something else - how to maintain control and stymie opposition.
It's laid out in a long document called "Structure of the Administration of the President." The book-length transition paper was undoubtedly leaked by someone who did not like it. It has been summarized in the newspaper Kommersant, owned by media tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
For starters, under this plan, the president would not rely on the support of any party, but would establish the "President's Political Council," which would gradually push the Duma off the political stage and ensure the president's monopoly on power.
Intelligence agencies would be part of the presidential directorate, as its "sword and shield." Their functions would include, not only counterespionage and counterterrorism, but also collecting "special information" about potential candidates.
If, for example, the FSB learned of an opposition candidate planning to reveal damaging facts about a Kremlin leader, the directorate would preempt him with a press conference revealing damaging financial information about him. The idea, says the planning paper, is to gain "real control over political processes in Russia." And not only Russia, but also the "near abroad countries;" that is, the former Soviet republics, like Georgia and the Baltic States.
The document, not disowned by the Kremlin, is undoubtedly authentic. It is not clear that Putin has endorsed it, but he has given other indications of his attachment to the secret police.
In a series of interviews recently published as a book titled "First Person," Putin recalled: "My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of a Soviet patriotic education."
He said that today Russia needs political police as much as it needs an army, adding, "You can't get anywhere without secret agents."
In his inaugural speech, Putin said, "We must ... maintain and develop democracy."
We will have to wait and see how he defines "democracy."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society