Allies Adjusting to Christopher's Consensus-Building

SYMBOL OF A SOFT-SPOKEN SUPERPOWER

June 13, 1993|By MARK MATTHEWS

Washington -- If the United States is a downsized superpower, the slight, soft-spoken figure of Warren Christopher has become its living symbol.

The secretary of state's mild demeanor and self-effacing courtliness personify America's awkward adjustment to a consensus-building post-Cold War foreign policy that has left it looking weak and vacillating.

This image may have been indelibly formed early last month when, over seven days, the Clinton administration made a 180-degree turn in the Balkans.

On May 1, Mr. Christopher announced at the White House that President Clinton had set a "direction" for military action in Bosnia, warned Serb aggressors "the clock is ticking," and set off for Europe to build support.

This direction got derailed by European and Russian objections, second thoughts on Capitol Hill, wider violence in Bosnia and anxiety among Mr. Clinton's political advisers.

On May 8, after hearing from Mr. Christopher and other top aides, Mr. Clinton shelved the plan, deciding, as a senior official said, that he "didn't want to push the alliance to the wall."

The episode put on vivid display a Christopher style that the world is having trouble adjusting to, one that calls into question how forceful he will be in pursuing his larger agenda of non-proliferation, human rights and promotion of democracy worldwide.

Unlike the Bush administration, Mr. Christopher and others on President Clinton's foreign policy team are willing to give high-profile attention to a variety of problems at once, even those that seem to defy solution.

In the process, they tend to raise unrealistic expectations, since they carefully restrict the amount of money and muscle they will put on the line. And they defer to, rather than exploit, international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council.

A firm believer in listening and talking as the key to diplomacy, Mr. Christopher is prepared to shift course sharply if his preferred approach doesn't get support. And he will settle for less than he wants for the sake of making some progress.

The Bosnia crisis also revealed a tendency for Mr. Christopher's innate caution and search for common ground to reinforce Mr. Clinton's inclination to flip-flop. The approach bewildered Europeans accustomed to being informed of American decisions, rather than consulted, and then bluntly urged to go along.

"There seemed to be a mismatch between the muscular rhetoric and Christopher's marching orders," says Arnold Kanter, a Rand Corp. senior fellow who held senior foreign policy posts in the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations. "I think both U.S.-European relations and American leadership suffered measurably by that experience."

Mr. Clinton "talked tough about the use of force in Bosnia, but when pushed, there was little resolve behind the words," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., long an advocate of heavy NATO force in Bosnia, said. "Now the perception grows in European capitals that the U.S. is weak."

This perception has been reinforced by a more open State Department management that has allowed dissent to burst into print in the form of an open protest of U.S. Balkans policy by 12 mid-level officials.

In this and other respects, the Christopher style is a stark contrast from that of his predecessor, James A. Baker, another smart, well-tailored lawyer.

A tightly wound politician with a colossal ego, Mr. Baker confined his attention to a few high-priority problems, won total backing from President Bush to apply the necessary pressure and then went all out to get results, squelching disagreement at home and abroad.

His role in reunifying Germany, the Persian Gulf crisis, arms negotiations with the former Soviet Union and launching the Middle East peace process reinforced American leadership even a period of shrinking defense and foreign-aid budgets and domestic recession.

It obscured the fact that the United States was abandoning a leadership role elsewhere, including aid to the former Soviet re- publics, a genocidal war in Bosnia and the job of restoring democracy to Haiti.

"I don't think Baker would have gotten this close to Yugoslavia," says a State Department policy-maker who has worked with both men.

This and other problems, allowed to fester even more during last year's election campaign, were exploited by candi- date Clinton and thus demanded Mr. Christopher's attention once he took office.

"I suspect more than any administration in recent times we had to deal with crises that we inherited," Mr. Christopher said in a recent interview. "I think the situation was aggravated by Secretary Baker's departure from the department at the end of the summer. There seemed to be a whole series of things that needed our urgent attention. When the Bush administration came into office they engaged in a six-month study on most of these issues."

Hampered by unfilled high-level positions and Mr. Clinton's need to concentrate on the economy, the administration moved forward on each while shaving campaign promises.

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