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

February 26, 1995|Doyle McManus | 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)

WASHINGTON — 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.

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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?

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