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Insider : Friend of Bill Looking to Become President's Friend to Russia : Ex-journalist Strobe Talbott hopes to step into new job of ambassador at large--and avoid stepping on the land mines.


WASHINGTON — His clothes usually display a professorial rumple and he has been known to turn up at dinner parties in shorts and a turtleneck. But former journalist Strobe Talbott is about to parachute into the top level of the pin-striped world of diplomacy as the Clinton Administration's top strategist on Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

The job of ambassador at large and special adviser to the secretary of state is new and, as yet, undefined, but Administration officials say it may be the most important diplomatic assignment in the post-Cold War world--the manager of American programs intended to support democratic reform in nations which just a few years ago were Washington's deadly enemies.

To fill the post, President Clinton chose a leader of that wide fraternity known as FOB--friends of Bill. Talbott and Clinton shared rooms in Oxford in 1969 when both were Rhodes scholars and have been close friends ever since.

Talbott's appointment was announced Jan. 19, the day before Clinton's inauguration. But he is still awaiting Senate confirmation.

At first glance, it would seem that Talbott spent the first 46 years of his life preparing for just such a job. A student of the Russian language at Hotchkiss and of Russian literature at Yale and Oxford, Talbott first gained prominence in 1970 when, as a 24-year-old just out of graduate school, he translated and edited the monumental memoirs of former Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, a work that remains 22 years later as one of the seminal documents of the Cold War.

Although he was obliged to widen his interests somewhat as Washington bureau chief and later editor-at-large of Time Magazine, a fellow journalist who considers himself a friend says that Talbott always "went his own way and followed his own interests, which tend to be very specific and narrowly focused" on policy toward the Soviet Union.

As Time Managing Editor Henry Muller wrote in a column marking Talbott's transition from journalism to government, "In Strobe, Clinton gains a fellow wonk, someone with whom he can continue to talk about the mysteries of this nation's superpower rival."

But although there is no serious doubt about Talbott's standing as an expert on Russia, his administrative abilities are largely untested. And whatever else it may be, his new job is a bureaucratic and administrative minefield.

Floating on the State Department's organizational chart between the European bureau and the embassy in Moscow, Talbott's task is to coordinate all U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. That includes economic aid, arms control, military-to-civilian industrial conversion, political relations and contacts between the military establishments of the one-time sworn enemies.

He is a State Department official but his mandate reaches to the Pentagon, Treasury Department, Commerce Department, special trade representative's office, National Security Council staff and other agencies. And, looking over his shoulder from the embassy in Moscow is Thomas Pickering--everyone's choice as America's best career diplomat, bar none.

"(Talbott) is an intellectual, not an organizer and not a very good manager," said a fellow journalist who knows him well. "His judgments about people are not always particularly acute. He is much better on substance. If the job is running people and managing complex mechanisms, that is not his strength. He is a thinker and a writer, not a manager."

But William Taubman, an Amherst College expert on Russia and the Soviet Union, believes that Talbott has the skill to master the bureaucracy.

"If administrative ability means being able to function in a harsh environment where there are a lot of tough customers and the stakes are high, then I would say he has very good administrative abilities," Taubman said. "The real skill is getting what you want through the system. If he's got the President's ear, he's got the battle half won."

Only time will tell how well Talbott and Pickering will work together. At first glance, each man seems to have gotten the job that best suits the other.

As a lifelong expert on Russia and the Soviet Union with an impeccable command of the Russian language, Talbott would appear to be ideal for ambassador to Moscow. Pickering is a master of the State Department system who has the stature to command other bureaucrats, but Russia has never been his focus and Russian is one of the few primary modern languages he does not speak.

Nevertheless, Michael Mandelbaum, director of American Foreign Policy at the School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, predicts that Talbott and Pickering will develop an effective relationship.

Mandelbaum, a close friend of both Talbott and Clinton, said, "There is so much to do that I can't imagine that there will be any friction. There will not be a desperate scramble for turf because there is so much turf to occupy.

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