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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Senate Hearings Short on Policy, Soft on Talbott

Strobe Talbott, who must be one of the contenders for the title of Russia's best friend in the U.S. capital, eased through his confirmation hearings to become deputy Secretary of State by the comfortable margin of 17 votes to one in the Senate foreign relations committee.

But that one vote was interesting. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was once described by a Senate colleague as "so far to the right that one more inch and he'd fall off the edge of the planet." Helms has also claimed to be the best friend of Boris Yeltsin in Washington.

It is not a ridiculous claim. Helms was the only senior figure in Washington to make time for Yeltsin when George Bush's White House was dismissing him as a blowhard with too strong a taste for the bottle.

Helms had the opportunity to press Strobe Talbott hard on two crucial issues of U.S. policy toward Russia. The first is whether the United States and the West have any strategy for helping economic reform now that the Chernomyrdin government no longer seems to define it in quite the same way as the Group of Seven countries and the International Monetary Fund.

The second is the Clinton administration's response to the growing assertiveness of Russian national interests in its near-abroad, and in international issues like the Bosnian crisis.

Senator Helms threw away his opportunity. He pressed Strobe Talbott not on policies to Russia in the future, but on relations of the past. In particular, he asked the man who will now chart U.S.-Russian relations about the visits he had made to that intriguing figure, the late Victor Louis.

Louis came out of Stalin's Gulag to launch a distinctive career in journalism by working as translator and secretary to the legendary American correspondent in Moscow, Ed Stevens. Accused by dissidents of being a stukach, or informer, in the camps, and a KGB stooge thereafter, Louis became rich and prosperous as Moscow correspondent for the London Evening News.

He had three great scoops. The first was the coup which toppled Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. The second was his exclusive yarn in 1968 of Soviet readiness for a joint operation with the United States to destroy the Chinese nuclear facilities at Lop Nor. And the third, which clearly depended on the KGB, was covertly-taken video film of Andrei Sakharov in his exile in the city then known as Gorky.

So Senator Helms asked Strobe Talbott why he went to visit Victor Louis when Louis was so widely assumed to be a KGB tool.

Talbott easily dealt with this, saying that there were only three kinds of Soviets for visiting Western journalists: dissidents who opposed the regime; personal friends who were apolitical; and people who in one way or another represented the Soviet regime. Louis was in the third camp. To ask journalists to avoid such people was like asking priests to avoid sinners.

So neither the Russian diplomats who were in the audience for Talbott's hearings, nor the rest of us, are much clearer about the ways the Clinton administration will seek to reengage Russia economically, and how it will deal with a Russia that seems ready to flex some atrophied geopolitical muscles.

I suspect that neither Strobe Talbott nor his old Oxford roommate Bill Clinton are yet sure what to do. Senator Helms, Boris Yeltsin's great admirer, wasted a golden opportunity to find out.