IT'S tough being the world's policeman: you are expected to know where places like Chechnya are, and to have a position on their problems. The United States repeatedly finds itself pressed to do something about conflicts that have momentarily caught the attention of TV viewers, but such crises are often based on age-old tensions and prejudices that outsiders can only begin to understand and in which they would be unwise to get involved.
There is no reason to believe politicians are better informed than anyone else. Now, President Bill Clinton finds himself having to explain why he had not criticised Moscow's decision to quell the uprising in Chechnya, a place of which few people had heard until recently, and hardly anyone would be able to place on a map. For Cold War warriors, however, Moscow remains tainted by its 'evil empire' past, and there is a sneaking suspicion that anywhere wanting to distance itself from Russia must have a point.
Regional tensions are hardly surprising in a nation the size of Russia, and it would be surprising if the country could go through a period of such extreme political, economic and social change without them. The US needs to know what is going on in Chechnya in case the conflict escalates or spreads, and in order to identify any possible impact on Boris Yeltsin's presidency. But only someone with an exaggerated sense of Washington's power - or a supporter of intervention in Freedonia - would expect Mr Clinton to do much about the situation.