Obama’s Strobe Talbott Problem

strobetalbott120908.jpgFredo Arias-King, whose work on Russia we hold in high regard, recently had an interesting comment piece (part of the NRO Symposium we linked to yesterday) pointing out the potentially problematic revival of Strobe Talbott’s diplomatic career as part of President-elect Barack Obama’s foreign policy team:

However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will likely bring Strobe Talbott — her husband’s “Russia Hand” in the 1990s — back to life. This is worrying. At a time when Russia looked to Washington for guidance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Talbott helped (morally and materially) not the America-friendly democrats but the remnants of Soviet power. When Talbott was a journalist, he had career-boosting relations with a KGB agent called Viktor Louis, and this could have trapped him in a Faustian bargain that affected his judgment later. Clinton herself is close to America’s allies in that region, but could sub-contract Russia to Talbott.

For his part, Putin owes a lot to Talbott, but is known to be ungrateful to past supporters.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Talbott’s name cast in unflattering light with regard to Russia.  Serving as deputy secretary of state in the Clinton Administration from 94-01, Talbott is accused by some of downplaying Russia’s transfer of missile technology to Iran, hiding certain intelligence, pushing a number of dead-end aid programs, and, at least rhetorically, being an apologist for Russia’s slide toward authoritarianism.  [Though certainly many of these claims are debatable: one of Talbott’s main opponents in government back in the Yeltsin years was Rep. Curt Weldon – the same Mr. Weldon who is under investigation by the FBI for dealing black market Russian arms to Libya and Iraq.]

Most recently Strobe got torched by the latest spy memoir of Sergei Tretyakov by Pete Earley, Comrade J: The Untold Secretes of Russia’s Master Spy in America after the End of the Cold War.  Tretyakov, who was the Kremlin’s highest ranking SVR director in the United States, featured Talbott as one of the main characters in his lurid tales of spy gossip.  Below is an excerpt of an interview with Earley about Talbott:

Q: That’s nothing close to being a spy, right?

A: Sergei goes to great lengths to say he had absolutely noinformation that Strobe Talbott was a spy, and he wants to make thatvery clear. In fact, he believes Talbott saw himself as an ardentAmerican patriot. But what Talbott did, according to what Sergei wastold, was that he put himself in a position where the SVR thought theycould manipulate and use him.

First of all, the SVR literally did a background personalityinvestigation of Talbott. It decided that he was vulnerable through hisego. Like many Westerners, who were eager to see themselves as experton the Soviet Union and later on Russia, that they would come rushingin and have ideas on how to save these poor, simple-minded Russians;and that they naively did not realize they were dealing with a tiger, asleeping tiger, but a tiger.

Sergei said that the SVR drafted specific questions and fedthem to Talbott’s counterpart in the Russian government, Georgi Mamedov– the man he was meeting with — and encouraged Mamedov to meetprivately with Talbott, to develop a friendship with him. Talbott bragslater in his own books about how he and this diplomat (Mamedov) becamevery close friends. What Sergei says is that the SVR was feedingquestions to this contact to present to Talbott and that he (Talbott)was unwittingly providing them with information the SVR found extremelyvaluable.

Q: Did Talbott do any damage to the United States?

A: In addition to Tretyakov’s statements, I think you have tolook at what’s known as the “Cox Report,” which is named after Rep.Christopher Cox. It looked at top-secret documents and how the Clintonadministration handled Russia. It came out very strongly saying thatthe Clinton administration — and that includes Talbott — really hadwhat they called “unchecked” backing of Yeltsin that undermined thedevelopment of democratic institutions by short-circuiting thelegislative process in Russia and making sure that Yeltsin and hiscronies stayed in power.

Q: Talbott and Mamedov both told you what Tretyakov was saying was not true.

A: Talbott says on Page 184 it was erroneous and misleading. And Mamedov said it was blatant lies and nothing else.

Q: Who do you believe?

A: I believe Tretyakov. Absolutely. I wouldn’t have printed itif I didn’t believe him. OK, why would I believe him? You have hisstatement: You’d have to wonder what would his motive be for sayingTalbott was a “special unofficial contact” if he weren’t. I don’t seeany obvious motive there. There are plenty of other scandalous storiesin the book. Throwing Talbott in doesn’t make a difference in the bookselling or not selling.

You have to look at the Cox Report. There is anotherverification that is independent of Tretyakov. A bug was found in theState Department. It was planted during the Yeltsin administration andthe FBI found out about the bug. I was told by an FBI source — andthere’s a newspaper account of it at the time — that the FBI went toMadeleine Albright, secretary of state, and asked her to please don’ttalk about our investigation to your deputy, Strobe Talbott.

Why did they do that? Because the FBI was worried that Talbottwas too close to his Russian contacts and that he might inadvertentlysay something that would hurt their investigation. When you have an FBIsource telling me, but also telling a reporter at the time — and whoreported it on the Internet — that they were concerned about how close(Talbott) was to the Russians, then I think that lends credibility towhat Tretyakov’s statements are.

Taking this into account, it is most likely much too early for anybody to be debating Obama’s Strobe Talbott problem on Russia.  We can’t be sure that that Hillary Clinton will appoint him, and one would also certainly hope that Russia is a foreign policy issue that is “subcontracted” to someone at Talbott’s level … certainly the war in Georgia has once again made the Russia file one of the top three foreign policy issues for the next administration.  Furthermore, as if in anticipation of the shifting political winds, Talbott’s writings lately have more or less been resonating in the mainstream beltway narrative on the unacceptable conduct of Russia in the August war and in other areas. (On Aug. 15, he roundly condemned the Russian position on the sovereignty of Georgia’s borders – and this is after all the architect of NATO’s expansion into the Baltics, the issue which all of a sudden really bothers the Kremlin).

However this is also the approach that exactly has worried so many of Talbott’s critics – that he is capable of voicing the same concerns and criticisms of what is going wrong in Russia, yet end up recommending policies that seem oddly consistent with Moscow’s preferences.