Bill Clinton, many conservatives believe, is a smooth political operator. Shifty, unprincipled, and generally odious he may be, they say, but Clinton is a “consummate politician” and a master salesman.

Mr. Clinton’s performance in Moscow during the first weekend in June did not confirm this view. He did not sell the National Missile Defense (NMD) initiative to President Vladimir Putin. The following day, addressing the Russian parliament—the first ranking Western leader to do so—he misjudged his audience badly.

Assuming his audience’s ignorance of his own legal problems, Mr. Clinton said that “a strong state should use its strength to reinforce the rule of law, protect the powerless against the powerful, [and] defend democratic freedoms. . . . The answer to law without order is not order without law.” Fie warned the Duma against amassing power “for its own sake” and defended America’s deeply unpopular plan for a missile defense shield. He then proceeded to lecture Russian lawmakers on the initiatives they needed to take in order to become America’s full-fledged partner, from tax reforms and uniform legal codes to the environment. He said that Russia’s journey to full and democratic membership of the global economy would be “one of the most important I witness in my lifetime,” but he made it clear that such membership can happen only on his own terms. Political commentator Aleksandr Sadchikov noted that “the standard collection of U.S. ideological stereotypes was trotted out—globalization, respect for minority rights, joint security, environment. The president’s monotonous delivery and the nature of the translation made you feel you were watching an unlicensed video.”

The speech was supposed to be the climax of a three-day visit which had been hobbled from the start by Russia’s refusal to defer to U.S. demands to update the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972 to allow for the NMD. Apparently hoping to sway the deputies where he failed with President Putin, Mr. Clinton spoke of the treaty in some detail, arguing that America sought only technical changes that “people of goodwill” should be able to accept. But he spoke as if the deputies did not know that he had effectively rejected Mr. Putin’s compromise suggestion for a joint anti-missile shield. In a radio program the day before, Clinton had told a caller that the Russian proposal for a joint system to shoot down “rogue” missiles was impractical and that he would go ahead with the NMD regardless of Russia’s refusal to play along. Even for the Duma’s most pro-Western members, that amounted to a snub. It disclosed the Clinton administration’s current “negotiating strategy” on NMD: It threatens to abrogate the ABM treaty unless the Russians agree to amend it as desired by Washington. But it is naive, or else deliberately provocative, to expect Putin to perform an act of submission that is contrary to his country’s interests and that would make him look weak in the early days of his presidency.

The worst of the speech was yet to come, as Mr. Clinton attempted to equate NATO’s bombing of Serbia with Russia’s involvement in Chechnya: “I know you disagreed with what I did in Kosovo. You know I disagreed with what you did in Chechnya.” Presenting this parallel to the Duma was tantamount to preaching the merits of free abortion on demand to a Southern Baptist audience. Even Mr. Clinton’s most sentimental flourishes, among them a supposedly rousing finale about his seven visits to Russia, had a hollow ring. “All my life I have wanted the people of my country and the people of your country to be friends and allies, to lead the world away from war towards the dreams of children,” he said as he wrapped up his speech. But the deputies who bothered to turn up—there were many empty seats—calmly read the newspapers or stared at their watches.

Clinton’s visit displayed the limits of salesmanship. Back home, he may fool most of the people at least some of the time, but he cannot sell a bad product abroad. The Russians know that he is in a hurry: To get the first 100 NMD missile interceptors up and running in 2005 as planned, construction would have to commence in early 2001. But this cannot be done unless the world’s first strategic-arms agreement, the ABM Treaty, is amended by November of this year. NMD is in clear violation of that treaty, and if Russia refuses to agree to the amendment, Moscow must be notified six months in advance that the United States is about to abrogate its terms. For his part, Clinton does not want to end his presidency with the “legacy” of unilaterally scrapping arms-control treaties. He may be the first LIS. president in a quarter-century to leave office without signing a major arms-reduction treaty.

Before Clinton’s Moscow trip, there was some speculation about a “grand bargain” in which the United States would trade off deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals sought by Russia in exchange for Moscow’s acquiescence to NMF). But the Clinton administration has painted itself into a corner, and Putin knows it. The Russian president may give in eventually, but he will require a much juicier plum in return.

Those long rows of empty seats in the Duma aptly reflected the vacuity of Clinton’s Moscow performance. But the Russian tradition of creating mirages to conceal inconvenient reality swiftly kicked in. The prominent and reliable Moscow daily Izvestiya noted that many deputies snubbed Mr. Clinton, whereupon “internal affairs ministry officers and security people filled their empty seats in the chamber.” According to the paper, about a third of those present in the Duma—and the most enthusiastic clappers at that—were state employees brought from their posts at a short notice.