Clinton 'n' Castro 'n' Putin's Nuclear Briefcase

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At least there was plausible deniability on the handshake. Or so the White House thought, Thursday, after Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to shake hands with Fidel Castro. Hours after the inevitable had happened — the U.S. president and the Cuban strongman came face to face on their way out of a luncheon for world leaders hosted by Kofi Annan at the U.N. and held their first-ever conversation — U.S. officials were especially eager to ensure that nobody read any geopolitical meaning into the moment. "A chance encounter" initiated by Castro, said Secretary of State Albright, insisting that the conversation had been "cordial" but "of no substance." A "momentary exchange," said National Security spokesman P. J. Crowley. "They exchanged a few words," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, who even insisted the two men hadn't shaken hands, only to be corrected later by U.S. officials who'd been in the room.

While happy to hobnob with all sorts of leaders whose human rights records are every bit as odious as Castro's — and despite the fact that the U.S. periodically negotiates with his government on issues ranging from immigration to drug interdiction — this White House, like its seven predecessors, makes a point of publicly shunning the Cuban leader. Thus Crowley went out of his way to emphasize Thursday that Castro would not be welcome at President Clinton's gala event for world leaders at the Metropolitan Museum. Last time Clinton left the Cuban leader off his guest list, Castro upstaged him by holding a raucous pep rally in a Harlem church and stealing the front page. This time, by all accounts, he simply passed a quiet evening at Cuba's U.N. mission on Lexington Avenue. Maybe it was simply relief that prompted Bill Clinton to shake Castro's hand.

While the power summit marks President Clinton's curtain call on the international stage, it has been the U.N. debut for Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who appears to have reveled in the attention. Like an emerging rock star not yet comfortable with his celebrity, Putin has the disarming — in more ways than one — habit of signing autographs for just about anyone who asks. So when he finished a late-night press conference Thursday, he found himself mobbed by journalists and officials seeking his John Hancock on any available piece of paper. Simply to catch his breath, he was finally forced to retreat into a private meeting room off the Security Council chamber. As Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made it through the door, his security men blocked anyone else from entering. Left outside among the disappointed autograph seekers were Russia's high-powered U.N. ambassador Sergey Lavrov and Putin's naval attaché — who happened to be carrying the briefcase containing the launch codes to Moscow's nuclear arsenal.