THE White House agreed last week to a May summit in Moscow. Those who wanted President Clinton to suspend or alter the American trip until the Russians quit slaughtering Chechens are disappointed. But they are probably not surprised. What might catch the eye of the small group in the White House that pays attention to foreign policy is a renewed Russian offensive in Grozny after the agreement to visit. It seems President Yeltsin is ''finishing up'' his military operation before the US president arrives.
The Clinton administration decided, probably during its first months in office dealing with Bosnia, that it was not going to be a leader in foreign affairs; trucking with the world's troubles was too much to ask of the first Democratic White House in 12 years. Foreign policy has been an instrument of US domestic business interests -- ''the economy, stupid'' writ large. Mr. Clinton inherited considerable problems from Mr. Bush.
Yet this is no excuse for an ongoing lack of articulated US principles and interests by the White House. In December the administration gave a green light to Russia in Chechnya; last week it gave a green light to Turkey to conduct a major cross-border military operation against Kurds. Where does the US draw the line?
The White House persistently nods to US business in China -- while mouthing concerns over human rights there. Yes, US-British relations are in a chill; and yes, Clinton may have some role in helping an Anglo-Irish peace. But the excessive touting of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in his US visit may have been an unnecessary debit in the larger account with Britain.
It is a false choice to say the US is today caught between ''multilateralists'' in the White House who seek an international consensus for every action -- and ''neo-isolationists'' in the Republican-majority Congress who want only to withdraw from the world and tend a domestic-issues garden. The US is the world's most powerful nation, and hence in a leadership role. Clinton must make hard choices -- especially when others won't -- to give meaning and expression to professed US values.
The White House missed a chance by agreeing to visit Moscow. Still, perhaps something can be made of the trip. US policies on aiding the Bosnians, on helping Iran with its nuclear capability, and on the military campaign in Chechnya are at odds with Moscow. If Clinton backs Yeltsin, he should at least make it publicly clear where he disagrees with him.