Who gets the last laugh? Policy jackstraws at State

BY: Frank Gaffney Jr.
The Washington Times, January 5, 1994

Poor Warren Christopher. The conventional wisdom around town has it that the secretary of state is a goner, slated to follow Les Aspin out the door shortly after the upcoming NATO summit and Clinton-Yeltsin meetings in Russia.

This conclusion derives principally from several recent initiatives that have reduced the position of secretary of state — and demeaned its current incumbent — in a manner not seen since the Nixon era when National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger effectively neutered State’s William Rogers:

First, Vice President Al Gore was assigned a new role as a pre-eminent spokesman for the Clinton administration on foreign policy matters. Press backgrounding established that this step was made necessary by Mr. Christopher’s serious inadequacies on Capitol Hill and television.

Then, Strobe Talbott — a longtime "Friend of Bill" and journalist-political operator — was elevated from his post as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union to the No. 2 job at the State Department. The accompanying announcement that Mr. Talbott would not only retain his former portfolio but would assume day-to-day responsibility for managing the department and take over the bulk of congressional and television appearances enhanced the impression that Mr. Talbott was essentially relieving Mr. Christopher of his duties, pending the latter’s formal departure from government service.

Most recently, press reports suggest that the secretary of state is being urged to give the key position of director of the department’s Policy Planning Staff to none other than Morton Halperin. It is hard to believe that Mr. Christopher, having witnessed firsthand the enormous controversy and considerable political costs incurred in Les Aspin’s ill-fated effort to make Mr. Halperin an assistant secretary of defense, would voluntarily hang this albatross around his own neck — even if the posting would not require Senate approval.

Still, despite these signs of Mr. Christopher’s parlous hold on power, it may be premature to write his political obituary. Indeed, the smart money right now might well be on the seemingly long-shot bet that Warren Christopher will outlast Strobe Talbott at the State Department.

Consider in this regard a stunning report published Sunday in the New York Times. It involves a leak to the effect that Mr. Talbott is the prime-mover behind the administration’s "Russia first" strategy. This strategy has most recently been evidenced in the decision to acquiesce to Moscow’s demands that NATO security guarantees not be extended to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

According to the Times, Mr. Christopher initially favored early expansion of NATO’s membership to include the newly established democratic and free market-oriented states of Eastern Europe. In the face of Strobe Talbott’s vehement objections (which paralleled those of the Kremlin), however, Mr. Christopher opted to support the Talbott alternative — a deliberately vague concept known as the "Partnership for Peace." The only thing clear about this concept is its inclusiveness; Russia will be equally eligible to participate in the "partnership" as will the states that seek protection from its hegemonic impulses.

At best, this arrangement will be a form of insecure purgatory for erstwhile victims of Soviet imperialism. At worst, it will convey the message that the United States and its allies continue to regard Eastern Europe as part of Moscow’s sphere of influence, possibly inviting renewed Russian aggression there. As one disgruntled administration official observed, it "subordinat[es] … our hopes for Central European democracy, where democracy is feasible and likely, to our extravagant hopes for democracy in Russia."

By putting the onus for this decision squarely on Strobe Talbott, Warren Christopher may have given himself a chance to survive the inevitable blow-back as the bankruptcy of this policy — like Mr. Talbott’s earlier, fatuous embrace of U.S.-Soviet detente and arms control agreements and especially of Mikhail Gorbachev — becomes clear. Crediting Mr. Talbott with principal authorship of this strategic miscalculation is no less shrewd a move than that of allowing him to take the lead in flacking for "less shock, more therapy," Mr. Talbott’s recently unveiled idea of making further U.S. taxpayer-underwritten assistance to Moscow still less conditioned on wholesale structural reform there.

Both initiatives threaten critical Western institutions: The former jeopardizes NATO by further impeding its ability to respond to destabilizing changes in Europe. The latter promises to eviscerate what remains of the International Monetary Fund’s capacity to discipline borrowers’ economic practices as a precondition for new IMF lending.

Unfortunately, the two Talbott initiatives also have something else in common: They will not produce the desired effect in Russia. Instead, Western irresoluteness in the face of renewed talk of Russia’s right to intervene in the affairs of its neighbors — not just from Vladimir Zhirinov sky, but from Boris Yeltsin — will encourage Russian aggression, not discourage it. And the United States’ readiness to continue plowing billions of taxpayer dollars into a still largely unreformed Russian economy will permit the centralized economic system and the authoritarian-prone apparatus it supports to be perpetuated, not dismantled.

An early test of Warren Christopher’s prospects will be whether he can keep Morton Halperin out of his department. Assuming Mr. Christopher has the sense and the clout to do so, the next test will be whether he can successfully fob off on his would-be successor, Strobe Talbott, the blame that is coming for the Clinton administration’s fatally flawed policies toward Moscow.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy, the host of public television’s "The World This Week" and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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