Sad state of State

William Safire

June 04, 1993|By William Safire

BILL Clinton has made two major forays into foreign affairs so far. His first was a winner: The embrace of Boris Yeltsin at the Vancouver summit probably helped democratic reformers increase the size of their victory in the Russian referendum.

His second was a loser: He announced his intention to coerce the Bosnian Serbs to the peace table with air power, then dispatched his secretary of state to Europe to bring the allies along; instead, Warren Christopher brought back the first public humiliation of an American president since World War II.

What caused this loss of leadership? Three possibilities:

1. Warren Christopher may be the most inept secretary of state since Edward Stettinius. Trained under Cyrus Vance in the Carter era, he may never have developed the necessary assertiveness.

Instead of interpreting "consult" in the traditional way as "show respect in lining up their support," he may think it now means "see what they think." Call this the incompetent possibility.

2. The secretary may be pursuing his own agenda. When his and Gen. Colin Powell's dovish view did not prevail against the recommendation of the national security adviser and defense secretary, and President Clinton decided to provide Bosnian Muslims with arms and suppressing fire, Mr. Christopher may have undermined the president's decision by making it impossible to carry out. This is the dishonorable possibility.

3. The president at first flexed his muscles, then looked at the polls and changed his mind; he then dispatched the loyal Mr. Christopher to Europe with the express intention of getting turned down, which the skilled lawyer, by interpreting "consult" in the passive sense, succeeded in doing.

Thus, since America could not "go it alone," Mr. Clinton could get off the hook by blaming the feckless Europeans. This is the Machiavellian possibility.

I confess that my initial judgment was to reject (1) because Mr. Christopher is an intelligent man and a successful lawyer; possibility (2) was out because he is surely honorable, and a suggestion of policy sabotage is scurrilous; leaving only (3), the Machiavellian option, which seemed to fit with Mr. Clinton's flip-floppiness, his need to concentrate on domestic concerns, and Mr. Christopher's reputation for being a professional ready to serve his client no matter how dumb it makes the lawyer look.

Recent evidence suggests my logic was flawed. The ineptness possibility has to be re-examined.

Boris Yeltsin's position on the Clinton "lift (the arms embargo) and strike (the Serbian artillery)" plan was to threaten a veto in the Security Council. He expressed respect for the coming Serbian referendum in Bosnia, known to all as a delaying tactic.

But nobody -- before, during or after the Christopher humiliation -- forcefully reminded the Russian leader of "the spirit of Vancouver" and the bailout promises extracted. Nobody at State marshaled private and public-opinion resources to lean on Mr. Yeltsin from inside and outside Russia. His insulting veto threat was not publicized and has had no consequences; the U.S. simply caved.

In London, the Christopher presentation was flaccid and unpersuasive; Prime Minister John Major described it to colleagues as "bloodless." The Brits claim they were prepared, however, to go along with Mr. Clinton if his secretary had pressed hard.

In Brussels, NATO secretary general Manfred Woerner offered to convene a meeting of ambassadors at which he would firmly support the Clinton plan; inexplicably, Mr. Christopher said no, he preferred to consult bilaterally. The message got around instantly: The secretary was not looking for serious support.

Our tentative envoy returned to the White House with a puzzled, frustrated report. President Clinton was genuinely distressed, I am told; he was not putting on an act. But in this case he did not blame his agent for making him look irresponsibly belligerent and vacillating.

When Under Secretary Peter Tarnoff sought to justify Mr. Christopher's rejection by allies with an accurate but pitiable "too poor to lead" doctrine, the secretary panicked and disavowed the views he holds.

I think Mr. Christopher is an honorable man serving a non-duplicitous president.

He's just not yet on top of the job of secretary of state.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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