Posted on January 10, 1994 in Washington Watch

Despite setbacks in some areas of foreign policy, the Clinton Administration maintains that its successes in dealing with Russia, Japan and on NAFTA far outweigh the difficulties encountered in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti.

Each of these three hotspots were inherited from the Bush Administration. According to the Clinton Administration, while each is a profoundly disturbing tragedy, none has an easy solution or is a great enough threat to the vital interests of the U.S. to warrant deeper American involvement. Nor, the White House argues, should they be viewed as measures of the successes or failures of Clinton’s foreign policy.

But while the President’s overall public approval is on the ascent, including the public’s approval of his handling of foreign policy, the Administration is concerned that its foreign policy team is not doing a good enough job at explaining the President’s policy to the general public or to Congress. There were also some long standing concerns over the foreign policy team’s difficulties in pitching Clinton’s successes to the press.

It was therefore, out of a desire to improve the effectiveness of the foreign policy team – particularly in its dealings with Congress and the media – that the Administration began to make changes in its composition and character over the past few months.

The first such change involved giving Vice President Al Gore a more visible foreign policy role. Gore is well-respected by his former colleagues in Congress and his intellect and thoughtfulness inspire confidence in the press and public alike. Thus, it was not surprising that the President would turn to the Vice President for help.

The foreign policy experience of most Vice Presidents is limited to representing their Presidents at the funerals of foreign dignitaries. But already, in the first year of the Clinton Administration, Gore has made major international visits to Russia and Mexico, and has been called upon to host the only two “state dinners” of this Administration (one for President Mubarak of Egypt and one for Prime Minister Rabin of Israel). Gore’s involvement in foreign policy included his leadership role in the NAFTA debate, and his launching of the “Builders for Peace” Initiative designed to secure U.S. private sector investment in the economy of the West Bank and Gaza.

The next change in the Clinton foreign policy team was the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and his replacement by retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. Aspin had been criticized by both the military establishment and some of his former colleagues in Congress for his handling of the situations in Haiti and Somalia. The Administration hopes that the Inman appointment will restore both Congressional and Pentagon confidence.

Inman is a long time veteran of the U.S. military and intelligence establishments, and served as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Reagan, and also enjoyed a senior post in the Carter Administration. Since leaving government he has established a fairly strong record as a business executive, and his choice was universally hailed by in the press and by the Congress. And although some of his business dealings have aroused some slight controversy upon closer inspection, he is expected to have an easy time during his confirmation hearing scheduled for later this month.

Yet perhaps the most interesting change in the Clinton foreign policy team is the most recent one. Clifton Wharton, the Deputy Secretary of State who resigned at the end of 1993, was not replaced until this past week by Ambassador at-large Strobe Talbott. Wharton, a businessman by training, was installed at the number two post at the State Department in order to play a managerial role. But as criticisms mounted, the Administration felt that it needed to make a change and went looking for a new Deputy Secretary of State who would enjoy greater visibility, one who could bring policy and communications experience to the position.

Talbott’s job will be to win greater public support for the Administration’s foreign policy work. He will be asked to testify before Congress and conduct major news briefings – in short, his task will be to improve the image and public understanding of the State Department.

The fact that Ambassador Talbott was a roommate of President Clinton in 1968 (when the two were Rhodes scholars at Oxford, England), has been a close friend of the President’s for 25 years and has been Clinton’s closest foreign policy advisor are all important factors that will help to determine his success in this challenging position. But his professional experience will also come into play.

Talbott is a journalist by profession, and like President Clinton he graduated from Yale and studied at Oxford. He served for many years as correspondent for Time magazine, becoming the magazine’s Washington bureau chief in 1985 and served as editor-at-large for the magazine from 1989 under 1993.

In April of 1993 President Clinton appointed Talbott as his Ambassador-at-large and special advisor on the former Soviet Republics. He was well-prepared for the job, being the author of five books dealing with the Soviet Union and the translator of Nikita Kruschev’s memoirs. But out of necessity, he expanded his expertise beyond Russian affairs during the five years he served as Time’s Washington Bureau chief.

Talbott is credited with maintaining firm U.S. support for Russian President Yeltsin, a policy which won praise from many quarters, even from those who disagreed it. What impressed most observers was the consistency of policy toward Russia, given the wavering policies toward Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.

Yet in choosing Talbott as his chief deputy, Secretary of State Warren Christopher got more than simple someone who would appease some of the critics of his handling of foreign policy. Talbott, because of his many years as a journalist, is a highly skilled communicator who, perhaps more importantly, has very close ties to the White House and will be more able than Christopher to focus President Clinton’s attention on important foreign policy issues.

Contrary to many press accounts, however, Secretary Christopher is still in charge at the State Department. Talbott’s presence will free him to do the things he does best, particularly the kind of policy analysis and negotiating which won him praise during his tenure at the State Department during the Carter Administration. With Talbott as his deputy, Christopher is expected to significantly reduce his media contacts over time, allowing the his more media savvy number 2 to handle that task. So Christopher does not seem to be on his way out of the department – on the contrary, he simply made the decision that any smart manager makes when he needs help: he went out and got it.

In order to really understand the tools he brings to the job and the viewpoint he employs, it is perhaps best to examine Talbott’s long paper trail as a writer and editor at Time magazine. He has consistently advocated an activist, interventionist foreign policy, in which the U.S. would lead multilateral initiatives under the auspices of international organizations. As he phrases it, “There is a nobility and tremendous political force in the claim that American power is an instrument of universal values as well as national interests. Throughout this century that idea has helped rally other countries when U.S. Presidents have called.”

Talbott believes that the U.S. must increase its overall levels of foreign aid if it is to maintain its international leadership position. “It won’t be possible to remain a superpower on the cheap,” he wrote. “If the U.S. lets other countries control the purse strings of international development, the reins of leadership will inevitably also pass into other hands.” However, he urged the U.S. to place “concerted pressure on pro-Western members of OPEC, to recycle more of their petrodollars and petro-yen through the multilateral institutions. The Saudis share the responsibility of major industrialized countries to help” developing countries, in his view.

During the Cold War, Talbott accepted most of the underlying assumptions of the U.S. policy of containment. He felt that the U.S. had to maintain military parity with the Soviet Union in order to deter Soviet aggression.

However, in the 1980’s he left the mainstream when he argued for drawing a clear line between containing the Soviets and alienating Third world nations sympathetic to them. He wrote, “The current tendency in the U.S. is to see the developing world as a playground for communism and as essentially inhospitable to the West risks becoming a self-fulfilling delusion.” He recommended courting developing countries close to the Soviet Union, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cuba and Vietnam, in the hopes that they would adopt more pro-Western positions.

In late 1991, before the American media had focused on the war in the former Yugoslavia, Talbott condemned Serbian aggression and criticized NATO for not responding to it. He urged the Western allies to consider military intervention and drew an analogy to the Gulf War, pointing out that Iraq responded only to military force and not sanctions. The strength with which he advocated this position is evident in his quote, ” If the Western alliance can’t cope with the crisis in Yugoslavia, it [the Western alliance] doesn’t deserve to survive the end of the cold war.”

Talbott’s most extensive writings on the Middle came during the Cold War. He generally supported Bush’s policies, hoping that the broad-based anti-Iraq alliance would lead to more multilateral peace initiatives and the strengthening of international organizations, ultimately leading to a new world order. He opposed the notion that the U.S. should attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein militarily, and hoped that post-war sanctions would lead the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam themselves.

The Gulf War also marked Talbott’s first attempts to analyze Middle Eastern society and politics outside of the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Like many other westerners, he has been extremely critical of Arab society and Arab governments. But prior to the Gulf war he had written extensively about the Israeli-Arab conflict.

He has consistently supported the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. In a 1981 essay entitled “What to do About Israel,” Talbott wrote “The wisdom of the U.S.’s sponsorship of Israel has been vindicated many times in many ways.” But he explored the relationship in depth and in the same essay wrote, “It is high time for the U.S. to engage Israel in a debate over the fundamental nature of their relationship. If that means interfering in internal Israeli politics, then so be it. Israel has been intervening skillfully and successfully in U.S. politics for decades.”

He also questioned whether the American-Israeli relationship is in the best interests of the U.S. well before it was politically safe to ask such a question, writing “Israel is well on its way to becoming not just a dubious asset but an outright liability to American security interests, both in the Middle East and worldwide.” Talbott saw that U.S.-Israeli cooperation has got in the way of building the very international coalitions he was so in favor of, writing that this relationship “has impeded American efforts to coordinated diplomacy with the European Community, and it has complicated U.S., relations with most Third World countries, and virtually all Islamic ones.”

Talbott also has argued for some time against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and has written in favor of the creation of an autonomous region linked to Jordan. During the 1980’s he criticized the intransigence of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party and urged the Reagan Administration to pressure Israel to engage in a meaningful peace process. He was also critical of the high levels of military aid to Israel during this period. After watching for several years that refusal of the Reagan Administration to stand up to Begin, he wrote, “The U.S. is obligated to do everything in its power to thwart Begin’s annexation of the West Bank.”

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