Did Bill Forgive Boris Too Much?

By Paul Starobin


A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy

By Strobe Talbott

Random House -- 478pp -- $29.95

Boris Yeltsin is in his underwear, roaring drunk, demanding pizza. He's spending the night at Blair House, the stately Lafayette Park guest quarters for foreign leaders visiting Washington. It's the fall of 1994, and Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet President, has come to meet with Bill Clinton to discuss the future of NATO. Clinton was never much bothered by such episodes--and there were many involving Yeltsin. "At least Yeltsin's not a mean drunk," Clinton tells Strobe Talbott, his top adviser on Russia and a friend from their days as Rhodes Scholars and housemates at Oxford University in the late 1960s.

Clinton has a point, but Deputy Secretary of State Talbott is appalled anyway. And he's disturbed by Clinton's "indulgence of Yeltsin's misbehavior," as he writes in The Russia Hand, his perceptive, if a bit self-justifying, memoir of his Clinton Administration days. A savvy insider's account of the diplomatic twists and turns of U.S.-Russia relations in the '90s, Talbott's anecdote-stuffed book is a treasure trove for Russia specialists. But it will also fascinate anyone with an interest in the personal dynamics of statecraft. An ex-Time magazine Washington bureau chief who specialized in writing about White House-Kremlin brinkmanship during the Cold War, Talbott sees Clinton and Yeltsin as a curious and rather worrisome pair of psychological twins.

After all, both dipsomaniac Yeltsin and alley cat Clinton could be said to be in thrall to obsessions that occasionally sent them reeling. "I suspected there was more to his affinity with Yeltsin than being approximately the same height and shape and shoe size, or being the leaders of two countries that could blow up the world, or being fellow politicians who had to contend with obstreperous legislatures and hostile media," Talbott observes. "The key, as I saw it, might be that Yeltsin combined prodigious determination and fortitude with grotesque indiscipline and a kind of genius for self-abasement. He was both a very big man and a very bad boy, a natural leader and an incurable screwup. All this Clinton recognized, found easy to forgive, and wanted others to join him in forgiving."

The question is whether Clinton forgave too much. True, when he was first elected President, in November, 1992, there were compelling reasons for hinging his Russia policy on Yeltsin. At that time, Yeltsin was a popular figure with ordinary citizens but was hated by Communist Party leaders--who blamed him for the Soviet Union's crack-up and opposed his pro-market reforms. "I get the feeling he's up to his ass in alligators," Clinton tells Talbott shortly after the election. "We've got to try to keep Yeltsin going."

In gaining Yeltsin's trust, partly through U.S.-championed credits for Russia from the International Monetary Fund, Clinton smoothed the path for important U.S. policy accomplishments, such as the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. On that, Yeltsin resisted powerful opposition from his own generals to strike a deal with Clinton.

Nevertheless, along the way Yeltsin deteriorated badly. As his bouts of drinking and depression worsened, inflaming insecurities that led to baffling shakeups of his Kremlin team, his political star plummeted. The very people who in 1991 had applauded his heroic stance against KGB coup plotters came to see "Czar Boris" as a national embarrassment. Average citizens sensed, correctly, that Yeltsin, also sapped by heart disease, had lost control of the ship of state. The real stewards were a murky band of Big Business titans--the so-called oligarchs--to whom the Kremlin dispensed massive state properties on the cheap in return for their bankrolling of Yeltsin's 1996 reelection. Yeltsin's rule was no longer the cure to Russia's problems but a key feature of its ailments.

Talbott, by his own telling, was alert to the dangers of the oligarchs but saw no better alternative to continued White House backing for Yeltsin. But Clinton, even by his friend's charitable account, comes off as seriously deluded. After Russia's financial crisis in August, 1998, he tells aides: "I've got to convince him [Yeltsin] that for the next two years, he's got to come to work every day and be a bureaucrat and make the government work." But at this point, Yeltsin was already a political corpse. Wounded by his own gathering scandal over Monica Lewinsky, Clinton may have felt compelled to stand by a fellow suffering leader. Nevertheless, his imagined powers of resuscitation of Yeltsin come off as political narcissism.

Yeltsin seems to have understood more clearly that he was finished. He turned his presidential powers over to Vladimir V. Putin on New Year's Eve, 1999--a surprise move that protected Yeltsin and family members from prosecution over financial scandals and assured Putin's election victory just three months later. The cool Putin's first move was to stiff lame-duck Clinton on the latter's bid for a deal on national missile defense. Clinton searched for a way to manage Putin, as he had Yeltsin, but came up empty.

Now, Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, has forged what appears to be a tight bond with Putin. So Bush needs to take care that he himself doesn't become overly committed, as Putin clamps down on press freedom even while pursuing an economically liberal course. My guess is that Bush, a better-grounded character than Clinton, will do O.K. Let's hope so: U.S.-Russia relations are tough enough without the complication of psychologically handicapped leaders.

Starobin is Moscow bureau chief.

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