Ex-secretaries of state fault Clinton's policies

January 29, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- None of them attacked their host, of course. After all, they used to make a living practicing the inscrutable art of diplomacy. Besides, they were having lunch with him afterward.

But when four former secretaries of state -- three Republicans and one Democrat -- gathered yesterday at the invitation of Warren M. Christopher, each played to type and each made clear what he would do if he were still sitting in the State Department.

James A. Baker III, the quintessential pragmatist, called for a policy of "selective engagement," a pick-your-battles approach to the world according to whether or not it suits U.S. interests.

Alexander M. Haig Jr., the Cold War, four-star general-turned-diplomat, warned about a revanchist Russia bent on rebuilding its empire and called the trend toward using U.S. military forces for humanitarian aims hogwash.

William P. Rogers, a laid-back common-sensical lawyer, politely advised the administration to conduct more of its foreign policy in private.

And Edmund S. Muskie, the longtime Democratic senator from Maine, avuncular and grumpy in turn, ended up criticizing a Democratic administration for not being as clear or as inspirational in its foreign policy as it ought to be.

For 11 years, the Southern Center for International Studies of Atlanta has invited former secretaries of state to muse about the state of the world.

What was unusual this year is that for the first time the conference was in the State Department and included the current secretary of state, Mr. Christopher.

In opening the conference, which will be broadcast next month on public television, Mr. Christopher praised the work of his predecessors.

None of the four was quite so magnanimous in return. But their inability to articulate solutions for the problems of the world highlights just how difficult it is these days to be the president's chief foreign policy adviser.

Seated around a semicircular table in an auditorium named for one of their own, Dean Acheson, the former officials lavished praise on the administration for its Middle East policy.

"Absolutely the right thing to do," said Mr. Baker, who started the process. He also plugged the president whom he served, George Bush, for "taking care of the greatest threat to Israel's security when we took care of Iraq."

The three Republicans faulted the administration for changing the goals in Somalia to include nation building and disarming the warring factions, and all seemed to agree that the administration was wrong to link progress on human rights in China with extending trade benefits.

Mr. Haig said that the process of change in Russia stopped months and months ago but that the administration had ignored that.

He also criticized Russia for a surge of neo-imperialism in former Soviet republics.

The four were solidly united with the administration on one front, the decision not to commit U.S. ground troops to Bosnia.

But the three Republicans also expressed concern at what they saw as the country's declining credibility around the world because of its failure to back up its threats in Bosnia with action.

Mr. Haig and Mr. Baker also expressed concern over Macedonia, saying that Serbs could try to seek additional territorial gains and NATO should consider troop deployments in the former Yugoslav republic.

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