Old Clinton friend guides Russia policy

December 07, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- From his seventh-floor suite at the State Department, Strobe Talbott is shaping American policy toward Russia with the steady confidence of a lifelong diplomat.

He had no government experience when his longtime friend Bill Clinton tapped him as ambassador at large. But with astonishing speed, the 47-year-old former columnist at Time magazine has become the unchallenged architect of America's post-Cold War policy toward the former Soviet Union.

And he's using his clout to give unwavering -- some would say unquestioning -- support to Boris N. Yeltsin, persuading Mr. Clinton to back the Russian president at every important turn.

In fluent, paragraph-long sound bites, Mr. Talbott insists that Russia's leadership is committed to democracy, free markets and a good-neighbor foreign policy, and he plays down evidence to the contrary. He dismisses doubts about Mr. Yeltsin's personal stability, signs that he is caving in to military hard-liners and rumblings of imperialism on Russia's border.

Sometimes he's too glib. Just minutes before news flashed around the world Sept. 21 that Mr. Yeltsin had dissolved Parliament, Mr. Talbott was reassuring the House Foreign Affairs Committee about "the beginnings of real politics" in Russia and Ukraine, where "legislators get up and yell and scream at the executive, but they don't have to worry about being taken away in the middle of the night."

If he's right about Russia's course, the United States stands to reap greater security and a rich partnership with a democratic, free-market colossus.

But if he's wrong, the United States may be caught unprepared for a threatening new Russia still armed with a vast nuclear arsenal. And a growing number of skeptics worry that Mr. Talbott might be wrong, or at least that the United States is now too pro-Yeltsin for comfort.

"It's like building the Bridge on the River Kwai," said Marshall I. Goldman, a Russian scholar at Harvard University, referring to the film about a British prisoner of war whose commitment to a project blinds him to its disastrous consequences. "It's almost like he doesn't look back."

None of this second-guessing comes from the president, who has long valued Mr. Talbott's insights on Russia.

Friends since 1968

Although Mr. Talbott stresses that Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is his immediate boss and checks in with him continually, his aura of power comes from his relationship with the president, with whom he meets as often as several times a week when Russia is on the front burner.

The Clinton-Talbott friendship took root in 1968 on a ship carrying Rhodes scholars to England, pairing ambitious 22-year-olds from markedly different family backgrounds.

Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, born in Dayton, Ohio, is the son of an investment banker-manufacturer -- the third generation of his family to attend the elite Hotchkiss preparatory school in Connecticut and to go on to Yale. Mr. Clinton was raised in Arkansas by a mother who worked nights in a household haunted by his stepfather's alcoholism.

Still, the two young men shared a strong interest in the Soviet Union, where each traveled during breaks from Oxford, and joined in what Mr. Talbott later called "a permanent, floating, teacher-less seminar on Vietnam," a war both opposed.

By then, Mr. Talbott was already a budding Russian expert. He had studied the language since his sophomore year at prep school and won top honors at Yale with a thesis on a 19th-century Russian poet. At Oxford, he earned a degree in Russian literature.

'He was a standout'

"He was a standout among many, many people who were outstanding," said a classmate, Robert D. McCallum Jr. He struck a fellow Rhodes scholar, Douglas Scott Eakeley, as "someone who seemed to have more focus in life" than many of his peers.

While Mr. Clinton pursued law and a political career, Mr. Talbott turned to journalism. Over the next 2 1/2 decades, while reporting for Time and writing eight books, he became a leading chronicler of the Cold War and its aftermath.

His most recent work, "At the Highest Levels," co-written with historian Michael Beschloss, provides a rich inside story of the Bush administration's relations with Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin.

Mr. Talbott's confidence, patrician poise and scholarly delivery sometimes come across as arrogance. But Time staffers recall a squash-playing colleague who helped younger reporters and who rose to become one of the magazine's senior writers and editors based on ability.

"He's not left a lot of footprints up the backsides of people here," said one.

Although their lives took sharply different directions, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Talbott stayed in touch through letters, phone calls and visits.

Mr. Clinton "has always been immensely loyal to his friends and very quick to reach out to them and accessible to them if they want to reach out to him," Mr. Talbott said. "He's a very easy person to keep in touch with."

Presidential timber

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