- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Strobe Talbott
Random House, $44.95, 480 pages

Diplomatic memoirs ordinarily fall into one of two categories, the unread and the unreadable. This one is different and "The Russia Hand" certainly should be read.
Strobe Talbott was for years a journalist working at Time magazine specializing in the Soviet Union and a sub-field all its own, arms control. Among his earlier accomplishments: translating Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs at a time when Moscow's masters frowned on such disturbances in the force. Theirs.
Mr. Talbott had another claim to fame before his move from journalism to statecraft: He was Bill Clinton's classmate and fellow Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the late-1960s. It is that continuing friendship around which this story is told. And a fascinating one it is. President Clinton may have complained about his bad luck in not living through heroic times and thus entering the pantheon of American hero presidents, but with all due respect, that's bunk. The post-Soviet era during which he served was a priceless opportunity to manage a nuclear-armed, former totalitarian power whose transition to democracy and capitalism was highly uncertain and fraught with enormous peril.
If the author has the story right, the Clinton administration did pretty well. At the least, it did not lose Russia, something that could have happened. Instead, a wounded behemoth did not lash out in a nuclear frenzy, nor did it drown in either a brown or red tide, nor dissolve into an unruly assortment of Eurasian state-lets, no matter how some wouldn't mind the place being rolled back to the Duchy of Moscovy.
Mr. Talbott is too sensible and too seasoned a Washington veteran to know his administration, any administration, can control events and that while it can claim responsibility for some of the successes, failures are also likely to be equally apportioned. The Clintonians got much abuse for not getting Russia quickly transformed into a market economy. What we got was a version of the Wild West even John Wayne wouldn't recognize. But how to stop all that and from distant Washington? I have yet to hear a convincing answer. Mr. Talbott doesn't offer any, he knows better, but simply let Treasury deal with the issue while he attended to other things NATO expansion, national missile defense, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iran, Kosovo, and, oh yes, Boris Yeltsin.
For it is the now retired Russian president that is at the heart of this account of Russian-American relations in the critical 1990s. And here he is Ol' Boris, as Bill Clinton insisted on calling him, in all his moments, good, bad, and disastrous: sick, sober, or raging drunk, a sentimental bully, and Russia's first non-communist leader since Alexsander Kerensky. Unlike Kerensky, however, Mr. Yeltsin survived numerous threats to himself and his regime although he sacrificed many a Kerensky-style reformer to do it. There is no V.I. Lenin, thank God, in this story.
Mr. Talbott, to his credit, does nothing to varnish the Mr. Yeltsin we suspected was there all along. Nor does he hide his own discomfiture at Ol' Boris' sometimes highly erratic and embarrassing public performances. This, in fact, is the stuff that "high diplomacy" can often be about which is something of a shock to first-time practitioners.It is rarely discussed in polite, carefully scrubbed memoirs. Statesmen, in these accounts, rarely admit running into the political equivalent of the Ritz brothers, although, of course, they do.
Mr. Talbott's recounting of the Yeltsin-Clinton phone conversations (telcons in State Departmentese) illustrate the point. Some of them were downright weird I pity Mr. Yeltsin's translator understanding an indisposed Boris. Once Mr. Yeltsin apparently hung up on the president mid-sentence with Moscow later explaining a break in the circuit.Sure.Then there was the time Mr. Yeltsin, uncontrollably drunk in the Blair House, went about the place yelling for pizza.
Bill Clinton, to his credit, seems to have taken it all in stride apparently enjoying Mr. Yeltsin's varied performances. It may have been acting on his part, but it was good theater nonetheless, and more importantly, it was Mr. Clinton who made the big decision of not abandoning the Russian leader even when the latter looked utterly hopeless.
As for Mr. Clinton's sexual foibles, Mr. Talbott does not dwell on them, but the pain and dislocation these caused him and his colleagues are readily apparent.There are other matters too that the author does not explore.Although he served as deputy secretary of State for some seven years, he is no ordinary deputy in this administratively extraordinary presidency.There seems to be little interaction with either of his two bosses, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright whom he seems to hold in esteem, Christopher in particular.
Other duties are given short shrift. Haiti, for example, gets a line.Mr. Talbott's portfolio then was Russia, Russia, and more Russia and he reported directly to the president. If anyone in the government took exception to this, the author does not say, although the arrangement would have almost certainly caused open bureaucratic warfare in other administrations.
But this is about "The Russia Hand," after all and the memoir gains in structure and coherence. Meantime, the author although lately in the diplomatic trade has not forgotten his journalistic skills. He is good at the detail and the vignette. He notes Vladimir Putin's abstemious refusal to sugar his tea a public display of contrasting himself with the wildly sybaritic Mr. Yeltsin.In fact, the new Russia hands would do well to memorize Mr. Talbott's take on Mr. Yeltsin's successor.
Then there is the remarkable description of one night in the Kremlin where the U.S. delegation is trying to resolve the Kosovo matter with Russian participation and cooperation. It was not until the last moment that it became clear Washington and NATO would be spared yet another Balkan brouhaha. The Russian government, it seems, was split between military and civilian with no one clearly in charge as the behind-the-scenes, down-the-corridor shouting indicates. For comic relief, it even features a drunken Russian major general who has no apparent brief, but who wanders on and off the stage and then disappears.
The author gives us other realistic details of what it's like being "in charge" and I am using the expression loosely. Example:Mr. Talbott gives us several instances of what he calls "CNN moments" when in the midst of a fluid (read chaotic) situation, the network leaves senior officials gaping at their TV sets about a development they are totally ignorant of, but supposedly have responsibility for. That's, of course, uncomfortable to put it mildly, and probably constitutes the longest "moment" for those who work in those parts of the government that count. They are also often left out of the memoir, but not here.
Nor does Mr. Talbott airbrush his own mistakes leaving Moscow in the hope a deal was really done, amazed how any set-in-concrete decision could unravel so quickly in Washington, never mind in the quicksand of the Russian capital. Then there was the screw up in Budapest where the script was not nailed down beforehand because, inter alia, the author was preoccupied with other issues. He was, like many, also snake-bit by a sound bite of his own making in which he hoped that the proposed Russian shock therapy would be less shock, more therapy. Ever after, this would brand Mr. Talbott as soft on Russia which, it seems, he never was or soon resisted becoming.
At the end, the author as postscript gives us his take on the Bush administration's first year handling of the Russian account. He is both fair and generous although he can hardly ignore a shot at the new president's account of looking into Mr. Putin's soul. Well, so what? What Mr. Talbott gives us is an account of the turbulent years in post-Soviet-American relations with the details on problems solved, and problems pushed along to the next bunch on watch. Those who wish to get into the game ignore this book at their peril.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration and currently teaches at the Institute for World Politics in Washington.

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