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WHAT ARE ENVOYS GOOD FOR THESE DAYS?

President Bush recently announced that he knew no one more qualified to be U.S. ambassador to Moscow than Robert S. Strauss.

Strauss, a man of legendary talents in certain fields, modestly distanced himself from such praise: If anyone had told him a week earlier about his appointment, he would have thought him crazy.The Senate is bound to approve this appointment, and the Soviets are delighted.

The issue is settled, except for the philosophical question of what ambassadors are good for these days.

Strauss will be an excellent adviser to Soviet leaders, telling them what they can, and cannot, realistically expect from Washington.

He will have unparalleled access to the White House and Congress. But access for what?

Certain questions arise: Isn't something basically flawed with a system in which an individual is picked because he has "access"?

Why does the president not give such access as a matter of course to his envoy to a country of critical importance?

Some White House appointments to Moscow have been disastrous.

Joseph Davies, a Wisconsin businessman who was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the late 1930s, thought Josef Stalin was wonderful.

But cynics may well argue that Davies' reports did not make any difference.

The same is true for most ambassadors except those engaged in specific negotiations such as on trade or arms control.

Today, as the secretary of state covers three countries in one day, most important business is transacted directly between the capitals.

The appointment of non-experts and non-diplomats does not necessarily spell disaster.

The former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, knew nothing about foreign affairs. But he was a man of culture and common sense, a quick learner and outstanding in his job.

Professional diplomats, on the other hand, even if they have linguistic facilities and background on Soviet affairs, may not be ideal choices because of personality or other reasons.

Academics tend to be wrong as often as the rest of mankind, though on a higher level of sophistication.

The fact that someone has been fairly consistently mistaken by no means affects his or her attractiveness to the media or chances of being appointed to the National Security Council or State Department.

Why, therefore, be beastly to non-experts just because they may not know the difference between Grigori and Valentin Rasputin (the mad monk and the contemporary writer)?

Diplomatic appointments still matter to a certain extent.

What will Strauss tell the president and the secretary of state that they won't know from the media? What Mikhail Gorbachev or another leading figure told him the night before.

But even this advantage is limited.

Gorbachev, fortunately, is not Stalin; what he thinks is fairly widely known, and power is disseminated among various institutions and people, most of whom Strauss will never meet.

The ambassadorship to the Soviet Union is important for public relations: appearing on television, meeting with people from various walks of life, unveiling new initiatives.

Strauss may listen with interest and patience to Soviet generals and intellectuals or even the KGB director.

But what will he tell them?

Strauss' enormous experience in American politics is of limited relevance in a country facing so many different and staggering problems.

Strauss has the reputation of a man who can get things done. But for the next five years, I suspect, someone will have to tell him what things should be done and why.