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The Bill and Boris Show

THE RUSSIA HAND: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy, By Strobe Talbott, Random House: 480 pp., $29.95

June 09, 2002|ANDERS STEPHANSON | Anders Stephanson is the author of "Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy" and a historian of foreign relations at Columbia University.

If you think Strobe Talbott's title smacks of John le Carre, you are absolutely right: Russians and Americans in his book seem fascinated by the tales of the English master of spy fiction, and "The Russia Hand" suggests one of his twilight experts, put out to pasture at the academic filiation of the Secret Service in the red-brick expanse of North Oxford. That red-brick expanse, however, is the only real link with le Carre's world. For it was at Oxford 30 years ago that Talbott came to room with Bill Clinton, the unexpected Russia hand in question.

Always in awe of his friend, the self-effacing Talbott would later serve Clinton as Russian expert and foreign policy advisor. Talbott's credentials were impeccable. In the early 1970s, with extensive training in Russian studies, he smuggled out and translated Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs. From Moscow he covered the Soviet Union for Time magazine and became a master of arms control. What he offers us here is a detailed memoir of the eight years of Clinton dealings with Russia and Boris Yeltsin in the wake of Soviet disintegration. Told in a matter-of-fact tone, Talbott's story is an insider's view, intriguing but also selectively silent to the point of distortion and suspiciously devoid of analysis. It will jolt you back to a recent epoch that now seems eons away, to a moment when the "Bill and Boris Show" was center stage with its dark and unintended hilarity.

Talbott casts Clinton as the nation's chief Russia hand because he believes Clinton demonstrated in his surprisingly voluminous business with that troubled country and its equally troubled president, Yeltsin, that he knew and cared a great deal about its fate. I find the evidence unconvincing. At no point does the Clinton in Talbott's book reveal any probing insight or critical awareness regarding the deeper nature of Russian problems. Endlessly gregarious, endlessly garrulous, Clinton keeps gushing forth instead about the need to support "Ol' Boris," as he refers to his pal.

Indeed, Talbott's Clinton develops a strong and genuine affection for Yeltsin, in spite, or perhaps because of the Russian president's often drunken and wildly inappropriate behavior. Yeltsin, Talbott remembers Clinton saying in the fall of 1993, when the Russian bombarded the parliament, "has been brave and consistent."

Later, while visiting Russia during Yeltsin's murderous campaign in Chechnya, Clinton likens him to Lincoln, another politician presumably trying to suppress illegitimate secession. When the Russian people persist in electing unpalatable parliamentary politicians, Clinton wonders when they will ever learn the democratic ropes and vote for the right kind of people, thus forgetting the obvious fact that the right kind, his kind, was largely responsible for the most devastating assault on the living standards of ordinary Russians since Joseph Stalin in the early '30s and the Nazis in the early '40s.

Talbott shows Clinton tenaciously clinging to the belief that Yeltsin is a yearning democrat, whereas the only yearning Yeltsin actually showed, aside from kleptocratic enrichment of his entourage, was a desire to destroy the Communist Party, not quite the same thing in these circumstances as being democratic. His considerable tactical skills he reserved for the domestic scene, where he played a clever political game between elite forces to preserve his own rule. In dealing with the United States and Clinton especially, Yeltsin proved a servile incompetent. So while Clinton in "The Russia Hand" shows himself to have a shallow grasp of Russian realities and Yeltsin's politics, he turns out to be the ultimate Yeltsin hand, handling the colossally insecure Russian brilliantly while pushing the American agenda with the greatest success.

A certain routine soon emerges. "Ol' Boris" blusters and shows off expansively. Talbott aptly calls this part of the performance the Rodney Dangerfield moment, with Yeltsin bitterly complaining that "my friend Bill" (a constant term of endearment) and the West have not been showing Russia, and above all him, Yeltsin, proper respect. If only Clinton had done so, the present problems would have been taken care of long ago. Now, luckily, because of their great friendship and leadership, the wise old team has once again saved the day for the world.

Saving the day typically means that Yeltsin comes round to Clinton's original position. While Yeltsin is giving away the farm, Clinton is only too happy to indulge the Russian's pitiful desire to plume himself in the cloak of a world leader on equal footing. Feeling Yeltsin's pain (no doubt truly), Clinton oozes soothing sympathy. As Talbott says, Yeltsin's grievances are actually put forth "to disguise how pliant he had been behind closed doors."

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