The Book Club

A Very Big Man and a Very Bad Boy

Dear Anne:

You’ve obviously read the book closely and astutely. For that, thanks.

Before responding to your specific points, let me make a general one about my purpose in writing it.

Any presidency is a complex, confusing and, to one degree or another, controversial subject: lots of people involved, lots of issues, lots of judgments—and often recriminations—flying in every direction. The Clinton presidency, I need hardly tell you, was especially tumultuous and remains especially supercharged as a topic of debate. My role in the administration was focused on foreign policy in general and Russia policy in particular. I thought it would be helpful if I were to do a narrative reconstruction of that policy, getting down the facts as I saw them unfold and offering as much interpretation as I could about how events looked at the time to those of us involved. I did this because of what I see as the intrinsic importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship and the extent to which I think the subject has been obscured or distorted by other public preoccupations that were swirling around at the time and continue to do so now.

We can come back to this point if you wish.

Now, on your points: Yes, the two Big Guys—as we who worked for them sometimes referred to Clinton and Yeltsin—did indeed identify with each other. After a particularly embarrassing (and drunken) Yeltsin performance at a summit in Hyde Park, during which Clinton tried to cover up for him in public, I had the realization that part of Clinton’s affinity for Yeltsin was that he saw in his Russian friend someone who was, as I put it in the book, a very big man and a very bad boy.

But more than that, Clinton saw Yeltsin as a political leader focused (“like a laser”) on one very big task—which was to drive a stake through the heart of the old Soviet system. To support Yeltsin so that he might succeed in that task was, in Clinton’s view (and mine), the overarching justification for putting up with a lot of the other less noble or downright stupid stuff.

Also, the Clinton-Yeltsin bond made it possible for the United States to advance specific, difficult goals that couldn’t be achieved through any other channel: getting nukes out of Ukraine, getting Russian troops out of the Baltics, getting Russia to acquiesce in NATO enlargement, getting Russia to participate in Balkan peacekeeping. All that said, you’re right to zero in on the problem of criminalization and corruption. It was mighty frustrating to us not to have made more of a dent there. One thing to keep in mind, however: Criminalization and corruption didn’t begin with the end of the Soviet Union; they were part of the Soviet system—big time. What happened in 1992 was that they, like everything else, were privatized. The solution is for the Russian people to elect legislators who will, over time, turn that country into a rule-of-law society; and for the Russian independent media to survive the current Putin crackdown in order to keep government honest (or at least keep it from being too dishonest).

As for Russian anti-Americanism, you bet it’s there—and one of the reasons is disillusionment with “market,” “democracy,” and other values and institutions that a lot of them see as the victors in the Cold War imposing on the vanquished. Some of that is inevitable: a kind of morning-after phenomenon; some of it is generational (it’s a lot more prevalent among the older folks); some of it resonates with resentment of the pre-eminence of American power (hard power and soft power, as Joe Nye would say) that is now to be found almost universally around the world. Over time, it will die down if two things happen: 1) Russia continues to make progress toward being (in the phrase so many Russians use) “a normal modern country”; and 2) the United States doesn’t overplay its hand with Russia—i.e., make good on the implications of “partnership” rather than just paying lip service to the word.