THE Clinton administration, once again, is finding it hard to be unambiguous. That seems to be its nature. A muscular foreign policy, firmly expressed, has not been the President's strongest suit. Nor has it fitted the low-key style of his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Unwilling to offend Russian President Boris Yeltsin, yet under pressure at home to show its disapproval of his war on Chechnya, the State Department has been focusing instead on shuffling the date of a possible Moscow summit.
That is not as weak a weapon as it appears. Mr Clinton has been invited to join Mr Yeltsin in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on May 8, a date of immense emotional significance. It is a serious snub if the President of the United States objects to spending V-E Day in Moscow while Russian troops are fighting in Chechnya. Diplomats have been haggling instead over a date in late June - far away to give the Russians time to stop the bloodshed and allow Mr Clinton to reconsider his position if the war continues.
But as a diplomatic response to Mr Yeltsin's unrepentant State of the Nation address on Thursday, date-shuffling is woeful. The Russian President's stance will not have come as a surprise in Washington. He was not going to beat his breast or apologise to the nation for sending in the troops. If he had not previously committed himself to a negotiated solution, there was no pressing reason for him to do so now. Letting the army take the blame for spoiling his intervention was a gesture any American politician would understand.
Mr Yeltsin's restatement of his commitment to democracy and his timetable for parliamentary and presidential elections did deserve the State Department's praise. But it should not have served as an excuse to avoid a stern rebuke on Chechnya. The Russians - and Mr Clinton's domestic and international audience - would have been more impressed with a tough - and immediate - statement from the White House. Diplomatic signals on the date of the summit could have been left for later.