Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Strobe's Russian Revolution

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.13
ISCA 1992-1994

Strobe’s Russian Revolution.
Only a few months after I arrived on the Desk, the State Department was thrown into a Russian Revolution of its own as Russian Affairs were elevated in status and taken out of the European Bureau’s purview altogether. This unusual setup reflected the priority the newly-elected Clinton Administration attached to Russian Affairs, and represented a major turning point in our relations with Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union.

The chief architect of the changes in our Russia policy was an old acquaintance of mine, Strobe Talbott. I had first met Strobe in 1978, when he was a reporter for Time Magazine. After the publication of "Khrushchev Remembers," he had been banned from the Soviet Union, but the prohibition was relaxed so he could accompany Secretary Cyrus Vance to Moscow that October. I will never forget the look on Foreign Minister Gromyko’s face when he shook hands with Strobe in the receiving line at the Lenin Hills Osobnyak. Gromyko looked as if he were grasping a dead fish. Strobe took it in stride, and the following year, at Georgiy Arbatov’s request, the KGB ban on Strobe’s travel to the Soviet Union was dropped.

Throughout my career in Soviet Affairs, I would continue to run into Strobe from time to time, as he traveled frequently to the USSR. Strobe was a good friend of Dick Combs, and he came out to Moscow on several occasions when Dick was DCM in the mid-1980s. I can remember sitting at a metal patio table in front of the newly-constructed NEC cafeteria with Strobe and Dick, looking in bemusement at the ghastly non-working metal fountain installed nearby. We used to call it the "mother ship," because it looked like the big flying saucer in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Strobe was a very thoughtful and interesting person to talk with, but I never suspected that years later I would not only still be talking with him, I would be working for him.

Strobe was about my age, but of course considerably more accomplished. Graduating from Yale in 1968, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he was the roommate of a certain Bill Clinton. As Clinton rose in the political world, Strobe rose in the world of journalism, translating Khrushchev's memoirs, working for Time Magazine, and publishing a number of books on U.S.-Soviet relations. When Clinton became President, his old friend Strobe was tailor-made for the position of Presidential adviser on ex-Soviet Affairs. The only problem was that there wasn't any such a position in the State Department. ISCA was still a part of the European Bureau, and there was even a move afoot to break it apart and parcel out the pieces among EUR, NEA and the growing South Asia Bureau. Strobe's arrival at Foggy Bottom reversed all that, and instead the new talk was how ISCA and other assorted offices should be beefed up to form a quasi-bureau that would be big enough for Strobe to run and use as a platform to advise his famous friend in the White House. The result was S/NIS, the Secretary's Office for the Newly Independent States, which Strobe would head as Special Envoy.

This approach had been tried before in the Carter years with Marshal Shulman, who headed S/MS. That office had not been very successful bureaucratically, as it never had line authority over the Soviet Desk, and was phased out with the end of the Carter Administration. Strobe, in contrast, would have all the authority he needed.

Strobe's biggest strength was also his greatest weakness: he was a "Friend of Bill.” Because of this, there was considerable conservative opposition to him in Congress. The debate was rather contentious, but in the end, he was confirmed. I passed on the glad tidings to Strobe and party as they flying to the April 3-4, 1993 Vancouver Summit, and I could hear the yells of delight in the background.

As a boss, Strobe was a real breath of fresh air. He was easy and approachable, even if he did have the Clintonesque failing of holding seemingly interminable staff meetings at which all manner of subjects were on the table for discussion. One thing Strobe was not was a bureaucrat -- he was not strong as a manager or organizer. He did, however, recruit a good superstructure of State Department personnel, including Jim Collins, to run the proto-bureau for him, while he focused on high policy.

Strobe was rarely critical of individuals, but there was one thing about the State Department that drove him up the wall: its dead, bureaucratic style of writing. Strobe would often look at a memo and say: "This tells me nothing." He was of course correct. State Department officers could write grammatically, but putting color and interest into their prose, not to mention controversial ideas, was beyond most people's talent or inclination. Strobe struggled with this for his entire tenure, but didn't make much headway. As for his own prose, nothing could be better. Immediately after Strobe came on board, I read his book, "At the Highest Levels," which detailed U.S.-Soviet relations in the final three years of the Soviet Union. The writing style was at times a bit breathless, and the focus was heavy on Summitry and personalities, with less time devoted to the deeper political and social processes at work, but I was still impressed. By the end of the book, I was convinced that I would be dealing with a person of first-class intellect, willing as few are to engage in real give and take.

If Strobe had one fault as head of S/NIS, it was that he was always focused on Russia to the detriment of the other new states of the former Soviet Union. On occasion, this would have hilarious results. For example, there was the swearing-in ceremony for Eileen Malloy as our second Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. Strobe showed up at the Ben Franklin Room to administer the oath and give welcoming remarks, beaming with pride, until, that is, I pointed out to him that he was wearing his Russian-American friendship tie that was festooned with crossed Russian and American flags. After a hurried consultation, he and an aide disappeared briefly, and then reappeared, having exchanged ties.

In 1994, Strobe was made Deputy Secretary, and turned over the reins of S/NIS to Jim Collins. It was a heady promotion, but I always got the feeling that Strobe regretted leaving S/NIS. He was now enmeshed in the business of the world, and there was less time for lengthy discussions of his favorite topic, U.S.-Russian relations, although he continued to keep in close contact with his primary interlocutor on the Russian side, Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Mamedov. With the end of the Clinton Administration, Strobe moved over to the think tank world to head Brookings. I still see him from time to time. On the last occasion, I was serving my final tour in Moscow, as Political Counselor. Strobe and I happened to be attending the same CSIS conference at the Hyatt Hotel. We bumped into each other, did a double take, and it was like old times. He was genuinely glad to see me, and I him. Perhaps someday he will return to government. In the meantime, he has left us with a very well-written memoir of the Clinton years, “The Russia Hand.”

Storming the Russian White House, October 4, 1993.
On September 21, 1993, the deteriorating political situation in Moscow turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin issued Decree No. 1400, suspending the Congress of People's Deputies and ordering elections for a new Parliament for December 11-12. The same day, Parliament declared Yeltsin was no longer President, and that Vice President Rutskoi, holed up in the Russian White House with rebellious hardline parliamentarians, was. As the crisis mounted, Strobe tasked us to do a memo reviewing the situation and, if possible, to predict what might happen next. One of my Junior Officers, Mark Pekala, drafted the memo, which, as usual, was a very professionally done job, but because he had to clear it with everyone else in the building, it was too cautious, and avoided the obvious question of whether the situation was going to deteriorate into violence. I toughened up the memo and sent it up to Strobe without clearing it around again, predicting that the situation would turn violent within a few days. This caused a lot of heartburn among those who found out that their cautious views were not taken, but as September wore on, we began to look like prophets as the situation steadily worsened.

On October 2, anti-Yeltsin demonstrations turned violent, and on the evening of October 3, the Ostankino TV complex was attacked by anti-Yeltsin forces. That evening, we set up a crisis management cell in the Operations Center, which I headed, in order to keep the Department leadership informed on the latest events, and to get ready to evacuate our Embassy personnel if the situation warranted it (we eventually decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to hunker down, as the situation on the streets was too chaotic to allow a successful evacuation). At about 10pm, I called Strobe at home to update him on the situation. After the Ostankino battle, Special Forces, apparently under Yeltsin's control, were reportedly moving to seal off the Russian White House, and speculation was rife that October 4 would either see the end of the parliamentary revolt or the end of Yeltsin. Strobe asked me straight out, "Jim, do you think Yeltsin is going to attack the White House?" I said it was impossible to say, but that if Yeltsin was going to attack, it would probably be at local dawn, which was 11:38pm Washington time. Strobe took the hint, and decided to come in right then. He and his deputies had just gotten set up in the Operations Center when we heard that, true to my somewhat timid prediction, pro-Yeltsin forces had attacked the Russian White House at dawn. We all sat transfixed watching the CNN broadcast of the siege, including the tanks on the Kutuzovskiy Most blasting away at the upper floors of the White House.

We maintained contact with the Embassy throughout the night -- and fortunately, it turned out that an earlier decision to hunker down turned out to be the right one. For the next few days, there was considerable disorder on the streets, and Embassy personnel on the compound stayed in the Gymnasium on the NEC, which was below ground and afforded the most protection. One marine was seriously wounded by a sniper, but that was the extent of our casualties.  The crisis passed, and we and the Embassy got back to a more normal bureaucratic existence.

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