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An Open Letter to Strobe Talbott

Dear Strobe,

It has been a long time—a very long time—since we’ve been in touch, but I assume you remember me from 1968, when we met at Magdalen College, Oxford. Having just graduated from Yale, you were there on a Rhodes Scholarship; I was on a Reynold Scholarship granted by my alma mater, Dartmouth. Despite your three-barreled WASP name (Nelson Strobridge Talbott) and your distinguished pedigree (son of a Yale football captain, Hotchkiss alum, etc.) you were unpretentious, and we made friends quickly.

Despite assurances from my draft board that I would not be drafted that year, I got an induction notice on Nixon’s inauguration day. You were the first person I consulted. Safe from the draft, like most Rhodes Scholars, you listened sympathetically. We were together in our opposition to the War if not in our vulnerability to the draft.

You and I played the occasional game of squash. And when my Dartmouth fraternity brother and Rhodes Scholar John Isaacson injured your eye with his racket, I visited you in the Radcliffe Infirmary during your convalescence. I was reading Tristram Shandy as part of my program, and one day I read some bits to you. You seemed to share my amusement; I can still see you smiling in your hospital bed with a big patch on one eye. When your father came from Ohio to visit you, he invited me, along with your Yale classmate Rob Johnson out to dinner at the Bear.

You had majored in Russian at Yale and were writing a thesis on some topic in Russian literature, Mayakovsky, perhaps? At any rate, you seemed committed to Russian studies. (Little did I know.) When I chose to take a student tour behind the Iron Curtain during the spring vac, you gave me some reading suggestions and advised me to dress warmly. Having packed for England’s relatively mild climate, I lacked a warm enough coat; you generously loaned me your insulated car coat, which served me well in Russia’s raw spring cold.

You likely debriefed me after my travels; I must have passed on to you my sense of the Soviet Union as a very drab place with a demoralized, often drunk, population, and a general sense of repression. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my trip—just that I was struck by the stark differences at the time between the West and the East. How lucky I was to have been born in the “free world.”

The tour returned from Moscow and St. Petersburg via Ukraine and Czechoslovakia. In Prague, just after the brutal suppression of Prague Spring, we were acutely aware of how hated the Russians were. This just reinforced my distaste for what Ronald Reagan later termed the Evil empire–perhaps the only thing he said I ever agreed with. So, like you, I was staunchly anti-Communist at the time.

The next year, you got a gig polishing the text of Nikita Krushchev’s memoirs, which had been smuggled out of Russia. The publisher put you up in an “undisclosed location,” which you let on was the Commodore Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts; we met for coffee in Harvard Square with friends of yours, possibly including Brooke Shearer whom you later married, and one of her brothers, Cody or Derek. It may have been then that I drove you to the school where I was teaching on a deferment, Kimball Union Academy in central New Hampshire; you stayed overnight before returning to civilization.

Your second year, you moved into a house with Bill Clinton and two other Rhodes Scholars.

During the next few years—the early 70s—you and I exchanged occasional letters. After that, the rest is history: your illustrious career–as a journalist at Time, then as a Russia hand and Deputy Secretary of State Department in the Clinton administration, and then as president of the Brookings Institution—was easy to follow in the media.

Eventually our paths diverged, I lost touch with you, with one exception.

In the mid-1990s, while you were serving at State, a close friend asked me to ask you to do her a favor. I hate asking for favors, even for myself, and resent those who use connections to advance themselves. But all my friend needed was for a senior State official to sign off on a job application of some sort. I phoned your office from mine. I got a frosty reception from your administrative assistant, who was justifiably protective of your time, but she put me through. You recognized my voice, sounded glad to be in touch, and granted the favor. It never came to anything, but I remember how pleased I was even to have such a brief task-oriented phone encounter with you after a lapse of two decades.

In any case, over the next several decades I followed your career with interest and was pleased with your success.

As I was by that of another member of the Oxford cohort, Bob Reich, another fraternity brother of mine. We were not close, and I saw him less often in Oxford than I saw you. But you and he both wound up in the Clinton administration—the Oxford troika, I like to call you. You and Bob were doing what Rhodes Scholars were supposed to do: go into professions, network, and perform public service. The Rhodes to success. Never a whiff of scandal about either of you. You, Strobe, were very much what we Dartmouth men referred to as a straight arrow.

So why am I writing you now, after all these years? And why a public letter?

In part, because I have become progressively more critical of the foreign policy that you have advocated. Early on you were advocating disarmament. Good. And closer relations with the Soviet Union. Also good. Indeed, you were regarded as something of a Russophile (never a compliment). But while you initially resisted the expansion of NATO, you eventually went along with it. Like George Kennan, I consider that decision to be a serious mistake (and a breach of a promise not to expand NATO “one inch” to the east after Germany was reunited).

When the Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact dissolved. NATO did not; instead, it expanded eastward to include former Warsaw Pact members and SSRs until today it borders Russia. Russia resistance to this is inevitably denounced in the West as “Russian aggression.” Hence the tension in Ukraine today. You’re not personally responsible for all of this of course. But you are deeply implicated in what seems to me a gratuitously provocative, indeed imperialistic, foreign policy.

Two old friends could amicably agree disagree on that, as I disagree with virtually all my liberal friends.

But your loyalty to the Clintons has apparently extended to involvement in generating the Russiagate narrative, which has exacerbated tensions between Russia and the USA and spread paranoia in the Democratic establishment and mainstream media. I am always disturbed by the hypocrisy of Americans who complain about foreign meddling in our elections, when the USA is the undisputed champ in that event. Indeed, we go beyond meddling (Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996) to actual coups, not to mention regime-change wars.

My concern about this has come to a head with the recent revelation of your complicity in the dissemination of the Steele dossier, whose subsource, Igor Danchenko, was a Russian national employed by Brookings.

I don’t know which is worse: that you and your colleagues at Brookings believed the dossier’s unfounded claims, or that you didn’t but found it politically useful in the attempt to subvert the Trump campaign and delegitimize his election. I suspect the latter. But doesn’t this implicate you in the creation of a powerful Russophobic narrative in contemporary American politics that has demonized Putin and needlessly ramped up tension between two nuclear powers?

A lifelong Democrat who voted for Bill twice and Hillary once, I am no fan of Trump or of Putin. But Russiagate has served as a distraction from Hillary’s responsibility for her catastrophic defeat and from the real weaknesses of the neoliberal Democratic Party, with its welfare “reform,” crime bill, and abandonment of its traditional working-class base.

Moreover, in and of itself, the Russiagate story represents what Matt Taibbi has called this generation’s WMD media scandal. The narrative, challenged from the beginning by a few intrepid independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Aaron Maté, and the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, is now being further undermined by the declassification of documents by the Senate. If, as I have recently read, you were active in disseminating the Steele dossier, you have contributed to the mainstream media’s gaslighting of the American public—liberals, at least (like most of my friends). Ironically, then, you have given credence to Trump’s often, but not always, false charge: “Fake News.” Once described as a Russophile, you now seem complicit in the creation of a nation-wide paranoid and hysterical Russophobia and neo-McCarthyism.

Say it ain’t so, Strobe!

So long, old friend,

Tom Couser

Tom Couser is a professor emeritus of English at Hofstra University.

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