It is just possible that the toughest selling job facing the Clinton Administration this year might not be in the areas of deficit reduction or tax increases or even overhauling the nation's health care system, as almost everyone predicts, but in winning congressional support to boost U.S. aid to Russia.
The Administration has signaled its intention to ask for $700 million in such direct aid for the next fiscal year, a rise of nearly 70% from this year's $417 million. Winning concurrence for such an amount will predictably require the President and Secretary of State Warren Christopher to use all their powers of persuasion.
Foreign aid has never had an enthusiastic constituency in Congress, only a dutiful one, that sense of duty being shaped most of all by a belief that helping certain countries was necessitated by threats or blandishments emanating from the Soviet Union and its allies. The Soviet collapse has inevitably weakened the main geopolitical prop for foreign aid. Like nearly everything else in the budget, the current $14-billion foreign aid program faces downsizing. Unknown for now is whether the added help for Russia that Clinton seeks would come out of a reduced aid budget or be a special appropriation.
The case for a boost in aid in any case is compelling. Russia's political future is far from being conclusively decided. The enemies of reform remain noisy and, so it seems, grow more confident. President Boris N. Yeltsin warns that the "creeping restoration of the past" threatens the progress made so far to drag the country out from under the dead hand of communism.
The struggle to rebuild the economy has been, and for some time will remain, disruptive and painful. The failure of that struggle almost surely would see the re-emergence of a hostile, ultranationalistic Russia, one likely in fairly short order to become a danger to international stability.
The United States, Christopher reminded Americans over the weekend, spent trillions to contain the Soviet Union. Now it is challenged to spend a fraction of its Cold War budget to try to help transform Russia into a democratic and market-based society. Is such an effort in our country's interest? Clearly. But a lot of hard work will be required to get that message across.