Christopher: a consummate negotiator, but can he be a forceful, tough leader?

December 23, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Warren M. Christopher, the lawyer-diplomat poised to become secretary of state, has built a lustrous reputation as the consummate negotiator.

To critics, that strength is also a potential weakness, pointing up fundamental questions about Mr. Christopher's ability to confront a disordered and violent world:

Are his instincts and approach those of his old boss, former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, the persistent peacemaker who last week argued against enforcing a no-fly ban in the former Yugoslavia?

Or are they in sync with more forceful statements by President-elect Bill Clinton, who has been ahead of the Bush administration in considering military action against Serbian forces?

Can this low-key, behind-the-scenes player become an assertive spokesman for American foreign policy?

The answers will have a major impact on the country's post-Cold War actions as it is increasingly called upon to use military force in unconventional ways to quell tribal slaughter or humanitarian catastrophe in a world no longer dominated by superpower rivalry.

It also will affect bureaucratic harmony in an administration that includes the relatively hawkish Les Aspin as secretary of defense.

To former colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski, there is a lot of Mr. Vance in Mr. Christopher. Both seemed reluctant to confront the modern world's "ugly realities."

They "preferred to litigate issues endlessly, to shy away from the unavoidable ingredient of force in dealing with contemporary international realities, and to have an excessive faith that all issues can be resolved by compromise," Mr. Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, wrote in his memoir of that period.

The high value Mr. Christopher places on negotiation is underscored in a collection of his speeches from the year after he left office as deputy secretary of state in 1981, entitled: "Diplomacy: The Neglected Imperative."

A key troubleshooter for Mr. Carter, he defended the Panama Canal treaties before Congress and worked out a new relationship with Taiwan following normalization of ties with China.

In the Iran hostage crisis, Mr. Christopher, 67, negotiated through Algeria with a bitterly hostile Iranian regime to achieve a complex financial settlement and the safe release of 52 Americans held for 444 days.

The result, he says, "was, in fact, a compelling vindication of talking as a central element in our foreign relations."

But whether negotiations alone achieved the release is still subject to debate.

The hostages' freedom came only on the day of Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration and amid deliberate hints from the Reagan camp that military action might be taken against Iran.

Mr. Christopher's stress on negotiating, a job he describes as one of "identifying common interests rather than differences," marks a change from the Reagan-Bush years, when talking with adversaries was seen at times as a needless concession.

"The world has changed a lot" since Mr. Christopher was deputy secretary, a Clinton adviser said. For instance, Mr. Christopher was "very comfortable" with Mr. Clinton's statement urging enforcement of the no-fly-zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

dTC "My clear impression is that if Warren Christopher had any

doubts concerning Clinton's publicly stated positions on Somalia Bosnia he wouldn't take the job," says Max Kampelman, a former arms negotiator who has known Mr. Christopher for years.

The political roles Mr. Christopher performed for Mr. Clinton -- screening vice-presidential candidates and managing the transition -- highlighted another characteristic. Always discreet, he has kept his own opinions -- and his ego -- well submerged.

Known simply as Chris, "he avoids self-aggrandizement almost like the plague," says Benjamin Civiletti, a former attorney general who is now a Baltimore lawyer.

Passed over for secretary of state in favor of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie when Mr. Vance resigned, he swallowed his disappointment and stayed on as deputy, depended upon heavily by his boss.

While never ruling out a job in the Clinton Cabinet, Mr. Christopher removed himself as an active candidate when tapped to run the transition. But he described his appointment yesterday as "a dream come true." Mr. Clinton said he had considered others when he wasn't sure he could persuade Mr. Christopher to serve.

Following the Los Angeles riots, Mr. Christopher headed a commission that urged sweeping reforms in the sprawling city's police department.

His dry public persona aside, Mr. Christopher probably will be first among equals as a presidential adviser.

"I have never known anybody whom I thought had better judgment across a wide range of issues than Warren Christopher or anybody . . . whom I thought had a broader range of relevant experiences," Mr. Clinton said yesterday.

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