A Familiar Face In a Timely New Role

IT started as a typical Bob Strauss breakfast meeting with the press. Banter was being served even before the bacon and eggs arrived. As he took his seat, surrounded by nearly 40 journalists, Mr. Strauss quickly let it be known that his important diplomatic role had given him no airs.

"Every time I come to a Monitor breakfast," he complained in a joking tone, "I always have two table legs in the way of my feet."

This prompted jibes from all around. "We always set it up that way to keep you on your toes," someone quipped. Another reporter joshed: "Make a deal with Strauss: If he will say what he really thinks about Clinton, you'll move the table."

Strauss had appeared at this forum some 50 times over the past quarter century, always drawing large groups of reporters anxious to hear his political wisdom. But on this particular morning the ambassador had made it clear in advance that he would not talk about domestic politics.

So, in line with this restriction, this important envoy to what was once the Soviet Union received this first question: "Are you making progress with Bush and Congress in persuading them to give more help to Russia?"

A very serious Strauss began to deliver to us, in what we were given to understand were the very same words he was using in talks with the president, the urgent message he had brought back from Moscow. "I think the American people need to understand," he began, "that this is a rather unique opportunity. That's an understatement. I don't think any American generation has had a better opportunity to make a major move toward what people used to call 'peace in our time.'

"I think the American people think they are being called upon to make some great sacrifice to provide foreign aid - charity - to what was once known as the evil empire. And I just don't see it that way. We have an opportunity to do something for ourselves here. It's enlightened self-interest."

Here a questioner broke in to ask: "What about the Nixon speech on this subject - calling this a Marshall Plan-type opportunity and charging the US with missing the boat?"

"Mr. Nixon," said Strauss, "had a contribution and he made it. If you look at Secretary Baker's Princeton speech, you'll see there's not a great deal of difference between what he said and what I've said and what Mr. Nixon is saying."

Strauss said that his reason for being back in Washington for a few days was to get a "personal feel" of what was going on and from this he had concluded that in the present political climate it's "very difficult" to get the financial help he is seeking. Strauss took his message to key members of Congress soon after this meeting with journalists. He pressed his position with George Bush in further conversations before returning to Moscow.

So it seems that a connection can be drawn between Strauss's plea (and Nixon's, too, of course) and the current disclosure that the administration is preparing a comprehensive package of new United States aid for Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. The Washington Post's Don Oberdorfer dug up this information with full details of the plan.

According to Mr. Oberdorfer some of the elements in the administration's plan include a stabilization fund for the ruble and other currencies, additional emergency humanitarian relief and technical assistance, more agriculture sales credits, repeal of cold war restrictions on US financing and exports and, possibly, a major increase in US commitment to the International Monetary Fund. The initial implementation of this plan can be seen in the administration's dropping of barriers to buying Soviet high tec hnology.

Bill Clinton hasn't shown any real interest in a major aid measure of this kind. He obviously believes the votes these days come from urging that all US financial resources be applied to easing domestic problems. Also, this aid initiative may get nowhere - simply because Congress will find no money for it.

But I think it is fair to say that Bob Strauss started something on his recent visit here.

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