Los Angeles Times Interview : Strobe Talbott : In the State Department--With the President's Ear

Doyle McManus covers the White House for The Times. He reported on the State Department for the last 12 years. He is the co-author of "Flashpoints: Promise and Peril in a New World" (Knopf)

Deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 spot in the State Department, was long one of the more obscure positions in Washington--until Nelson Strobridge Talbott III took the job. Talbott, a former Time magazine correspondent, was one of Bill Clinton's closest confidants: the capital's original, and most authentic, Friend of Bill. In 1969, the young Clinton and Talbott were house mates as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford; in the decades that followed, Clinton, the rising politician, often visited Talbott in Washington. When he became President, Clinton tapped Talbott--who had made a considerable journalistic reputation as a chronicler of U.S.-Soviet diplomacy during the Cold War--as a special envoy to the former Soviet Union. In less than a year, Talbott ascended to the slot beneath Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Talbott's combination of intellectual heft and presidential trust immediately made him one of the Administration's most powerful foreign-policy figures. Usually, the secretary of state chooses the issues he wants to work on, and the deputy secretary gets the leftovers; in this Administration, State Department officials joke, it's the other way around. Talbott, who has carefully maintained a record of both public and private loyalty to Christopher, dismisses such talk with a scowl. Still, he has retained his role as chief organizer and spokesman for the Administration's policy toward Russia and its neighbors; he coordinated U.S. policy during last year's crisis in Haiti, culminating in Clinton's decision to land troops, and he has played an expanding role on other issues, including the West's unsuccessful struggle to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Talbott, 48, could well be Clinton's next choice as secretary of state if Christopher retires--but he would be controversial. Conservative Republicans in the Senate, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have accused him of being too solicitous toward Russia and have warned that they would fight his nomination. Talbott, who studied Russian literature at Yale (and has written poetry in both Russian and English) says the charge is unwarranted. He also says he has no plans to change jobs.

Talbott is married to Brooke Shearer, a former journalist who grew up in Los Angeles, daughter of Parade magazine editor Lloyd Shearer. They met when Shearer was in high school, traveled east to check out colleges and stayed with her brother, Derek, Talbott's best friend at Yale. Shearer was an aide to her friend Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign and is now director of the White House Fellowship program. Talbott and Shearer have two sons: Devin, 18, and Adrian, 14.

As befits a journalist-turned-diplomat, Talbott speaks in complete paragraphs. In his new role, he tries to check an impulse to indulge in phrasemaking; he once landed in trouble by declaring that, after several years of "shock therapy," what Russia needed was "less shock and more therapy." He was interviewed in the deputy secretary's elegant, federal-style conference room on the seventh floor of the State Department; Russia's deputy defense minister, next on his schedule, waited patiently in an anteroom.


Question: The Clinton Administration asked Congress for another $260 million in aid to Russia--despite U.S. complaints over the Russian attack on Chechnya, Russian policy on Bosnia and Russian arms sales to Iran. Do we have to help Russia no matter what they do?

Answer: No. That's not how I would put it. The premise of our policy is that what is happening in that whole vast area that used to be the Soviet Union is of immense importance to the interests of the United States . . . . We have a huge stake, strategically. And, therefore, we should use what influence we have to increase the chances that, over time, the trends will be in what we would regard as the right direction--and I think most Russians would regard as the right direction.

We're going to support reform. We're not going to support--indeed, we're going to oppose--developments and policies that are contrary to reform. So there's been a clear but general notion of conditionality behind our support for reform since the beginning of the Administration.

The second thing is the notion of "the Russians" doing something. There are 150 million Russians; they're doing a lot of different things--some of it good, some of it bad and a lot of it uncertain and ambiguous. The thrust of our policy is to try to identify those Russians who are engaged in reform and help them.

An awful lot of what we're doing, by way of bilateral assistance, is not directed to the Russian government per se. The lion's share of it is going to beneficiaries outside the Russian government.

Q: In Chechnya, the United States has urged Russia to seek a negotiated political settlement. Hasn't the Russian government rejected that advice by continuing its military operations?

A: I think that is a premature and simplistic summary of the current situation . . . .

Chechnya has immense importance. First of all, it has had a devastating effect on the prospects for reform across the board--economic and political, as well as foreign policy. It has substantially weakened Boris Yeltsin's support among the Russian people--his approval ratings have dropped precipitously, in large part because of disillusionment with his handling (of the crisis). The conduct of the Russian military, which is the responsibility of the Russian government, has--by the admission of many Russians--violated international norms.

The large enterprise we're involved in here is opening up the option of Russia's integration into the community of industrialized democracies. Any steps that Russia takes that call into question its willingness, or ability, to be so integrated are huge steps backward. And Chechnya qualifies as one of those.

Q: Did Yeltsin lose control of the Russian military in Chechnya? If he is in control, is he culpable for war crimes?

A: Boris Yeltsin is the president of that country. The buck or the ruble stops at his desk. He is responsible . . . .

There is no question that some serious questions of governance arose during the course of this thing. We have studied the episode closely. We continue to . . . .

Q: Does Yeltsin control his military now?

A: Yes. It is our judgment that he does.

Q: Will President Clinton accept Yeltsin's invitation to attend Russia's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of victory in World War II on May 8?

A: This is a very important event . . . . Exactly how the President celebrates it has not been determined yet.

Q: If the conflict in Chechnya is still under way in May, can Clinton attend a military ceremony in Moscow?

A: We feel very strongly that it's in the Russian Federation's own interest to resolve the Chechen crisis through a political settlement and not through a continued resort to use of force that has left huge numbers of innocent civilians dead. We are going to continue to support reform in Russia wherever we find it, and we're going to continue to try to develop the many common tasks we have with the Russian government. The quality, the content, the pace of our interaction with the Russian government are going to depend--as they have all along--on Russian policy. And, obviously, Chechnya is quite understandably the preoccupation of the moment. That is one of many reasons we hope it will fade as a crisis as quickly as possible. And we also hope that, as it fades into history, the Russian Federation will derive the right lessons from it.

Q: After so many failures, what is doable in Bosnia? What would you consider a success for Western policy?

A: An enduring cease-fire and cessation of hostilities, and all parties accepting the Contact Group proposal, including the Contact Group map (which would preserve 51% of Bosnia for Muslims and Croats, and leave 49% for the Serbs). And, by the way, we think it's not only desirable, we think it's doable.

Q: Can you accept a Greater Serbia that would join the Serbs of Bosnia with Serbia itself, either through some kind of federal arrangement or by redrawn borders?

A: Absolutely not . . . . We think it is a fundamental tenet of preserving and maintaining peace in this post-Cold War era for the international community to oppose any effort to change international borders by force. Now, that can take different forms. It can take the form of one country aggrandizing itself, which is to say, the territory of its own state through the use of force--and that's exactly what a greater Serbia entails. The Bosnian Serbs, and indeed the Serb diaspora throughout the former Yugoslavia, has engaged in grotesque extremes in the use of force to try to create a greater Serbia, and they must not succeed.

Q: If you were still a columnist, would you be railing against the weakness of the West in Bosnia?

A: If I were still a columnist, I would be feeling--and no doubt expressing--the frustration a lot of us feel as we ponder this whole thing. I mean, it is a deeply, deeply vexing and frustrating set of problems.

Part of the problem is that we got caught without the necessary institutions and mechanisms. We had in Europe a security mechanism in NATO that was very well-suited for the task at hand. We tried, as it were, to turn on a dime and take that mechanism and apply it to a completely different challenge--and we have not succeeded in doing so.

There is an immediate task, which we have not yet fulfilled, of using the will and the power available to the West through NATO and through the United Nations to fix the Bosnia problem. And then, in addition, you have to come up with some permanent institutions that will deal with future and, in some cases, similar threats to security and stability in Europe.

One reason it's so important that we succeed in the former Yugoslavia is that . . . if we fail there, it is less likely that we will succeed in putting in place the institutions we will need for the next century . . . . With the end of the Cold War, a Pandora's box has been opened, particularly in the Balkans.

Q: Without a Cold War to fight, how do you explain the purpose of U.S. foreign policy? Why should ordinary Americans support intervention abroad?

A: In addition to the end of the Cold War--which was, of course, in a perverse way, a stabilizing phenomenon, because it kind of kept frozen in ice huge parts of the world which are now unfrozen and troublesome--the other most important trend and phenomenon in the modern world is interdependence . . . .

What happens elsewhere matters to us--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. To an extent well beyond what was the case as recently as a decade ago, the United States has opportunities as a result of what's happening in other parts of the world, but also faces risks. And that, in a nutshell, is the rationale for American engagement.

. . . . But the most basic argument for continued engagement, the most compelling refutation of isolationism--'neo' or otherwise--is that the United States has a national-security interest in what happens elsewhere.

Haiti, which was an extremely controversial policy, is a case study in how the national interest of the United States can be jeopardized when things are going very badly in a foreign country.

And I've been gratified to find that isolationism really is not the right word to characterize the mood of the country. My sense is that there is a sentiment out there that we've got a lot of problems of our own that we need to address--which is true . . . .

Q: Are you concerned about an isolationist impulse among the new Republican members of Congress?

A: I've encountered among the new members whom I've met a high degree of skepticism--but it's open-minded skepticism. These are extremely smart, savvy folks who are new to this job but know they're new to it and are prepared to listen. They came to Washington to convey a message--and we're prepared to listen to that message, I might add--but they're also prepared to hear us make the case.

Q: Do you expect foreign policy to be a major issue in next year's presidential campaign?

A: It will be, to some extent. But foreign policy tends to be a decisive issue only when there is a huge national crisis of some kind--the Vietnam War comes to mind.

I think it will also depend on how successful we are in convincing the American people--including a lot of Republican members of Congress and folks in the country as a whole--that we're on the right track; and we're on the right track in a way that is consistent with the basic values that we've inherited from our predecessors and that we will, in due course many years from now, pass on to our successors.

I think it will quite properly be an issue. I would not expect it to be a pivotal issue.

Q: You've been in the State Department a little more than two years now. What have you learned about the way government works?

A: I spent, as a journalist, a lot of time trying to understand the process of policy-making myself, so I had--more than a lot of people who have come into jobs like this from outside of government--some sense of what it was like before I got here.

But what I underestimated as a journalist was the extent to which the best-laid plans are not sufficient to deal with situations as they actually develop. What you have to do in order to get it right is be flexible enough to deal with the world when it doesn't cooperate with your strategy, while being consistent and principled enough to keep your strategy clear in your mind--so that you don't get thrown off course too much when events don't cooperate. I kind of knew that. If you had told me that two years ago, I would have said, "Yeah, I know that." But I sort of feel it in my protoplasm now, in a way I didn't then.*

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