Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Putin’s Washington

Even money, lots and lots of money, can’t buy him love. A story of lobbying and its limits.


Inside the bar near Union Station, the two men propped their elbows on a table and locked hands. They’d paired off, American versus Russian, congressman from California versus deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. It was the 1990s, not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and Dana Rohrabacher squinted across the table at his opponent, a compact Russian with wispy blond hair and hooded blue eyes. The man carried himself with cool poise. Earlier that day, he and two of his colleagues had joined Rohrabacher and a group of right-wingers for a game of touch football. The Russians acquitted themselves well.

The Cold War was over. Hopes for cooperation between former enemies ran high. The Russian delegates had wanted to meet Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan who had helped shape the Reagan Doctrine, which sought to undercut Soviet influence around the world by backing anticommunist guerrillas. Rohrabacher had managed to avoid military service himself during the Vietnam War but often boasted about a Charlie Wilson moment he had in Afghanistan in 1988, when he spent a couple of weeks with a mujahedeen unit near the city of Jalalabad. He claimed to have helped shoot a missile at a Soviet position, taking return fire for his efforts.

He was just the guy to wrassle Russkies in a bar. The group also included Ed Royce, another California Republican congressman who now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer and anticommunist activist who had spent time with insurgents around the world. They rolled into Kelly’s Irish Times, an F Street dive that has seen its share of crapulent Washington history. They drank cheap beer. Lots of it. They drank until the inevitable question came up: Who really won the Cold War? Or, as Rohrabacher clarifies today, did the Americans win the Cold War, “or did it just end?” There were many possible ways to decide the question. Arm wrestling was deemed best. So a table was cleared. A crowd drew near. The congressman would take on the deputy mayor.

(More here.)


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