US Envoy Strauss: Help Russia

With election-year purse-tightening, US is missing historic opportunity to aid reform. DIPLOMACY

IN a kinder and gentler way, Robert Strauss is saying what Richard Nixon is saying: The United States is missing a historic opportunity to help Russian reform succeed.

There is a case to be made for why it's in the American people's interest to kick in more aid money, says the US's charismatic ambassador to Russia and veteran Democratic politico. The Bush administration has been making a case, though not in the way he would, Ambassador Strauss contends diplomatically.

"I think the American public has a feeling they're being called upon to make some ... great sacrifice, to provide foreign aid and charity to a foreign country - and particularly one that was known as the evil empire. And I just don't see it that way," Strauss told reporters at a Monitor breakfast last Friday.

There are selfish arguments for helping the Russians reform their system and economy, proponents of aid argue. It could forestall a takeover by a hostile regime, which, in the worst scenario, could threaten the world with nuclear weapons and renew an expensive arms race. And it could eventually turn into profits for American business by opening up new markets for US goods.

Some background: The US agreed in 1990 to contribute $12 billion to a multination increase of funds for the International Monetary Fund so it could expand its loanmaking to struggling nations, which now include Russia. The Bush administration sent legislation up to Capitol Hill to boost the US's IMF "quota," but President Bush himself has done little to move the bill.

Strauss skirts direct criticism of his boss. But his frustration is clear. "All we are trying to do is put in our share of the quota - [it] requires no cash outlay - I guess, 18 to 19 percent. The rest of the Western world is paying 81 percent," Strauss says. "It's foolish for pure cold-blooded business purposes that we don't do it."

Strauss says one of the reasons he came back was to "get a personal feel of what's going on." Getting money difficult

"Till the debate is changed, I think there's going to be a great difficulty getting money," he concludes. "And I don't know that the debate will change during this ... presidential election cycle. I hope it does, because I don't think we have the luxury of continuing to wait."

Political analysts here say there's no way Bush can make a pitch for aid to Russia without getting clobbered by opponents in both parties. And the beleaguered American public just won't stand for it, no matter how the debate is framed.

"It would reinforce Bush's principal negative - that he's more comfortable with foreign issues than with his own people," says Republican pollster Vincent Breglio.

Strauss is clearly frustrated by his job, which he says he has "no intention" of leaving before the election. But people close to him don't expect him to stay much longer than that. If nothing else, he will come away with vivid reminiscences of some of the seminal figures of this century. Friend of Gorbachev

When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev left office, "I lost my best friend," he says. "I had dinner with him, I saw him almost daily. I loved to see him, he loved to see me. We talked American politics, we talked Russian politics, Soviet politics. We talked about problems and his family ... Was I sad? Yes."

His best story about Boris Yeltsin is of how he invited himself and his wife to come for dinner with the Strausses - the next evening, 6 p.m. sharp.

"He came in and said, 'I have no agenda. I'm going to have to learn personal diplomacy, and I don't know anything about personal diplomacy. But I need to learn and I tell you, I would begin with you, someone I'm comfortable with and I can talk to,' " Strauss recounts.

"And with that, he sat down, and we had the kind of visit that you would have with another couple that you hadn't seen in a long time.... I couldn't have done that with him a month earlier. Believe it or not, I don't think he had that kind of security about his ability to function."

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