Christopher's star dimming at state U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 24, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the capital's zero-sum atmosphere, the big loser in the Jimmy Carter mission to Haiti is widely seen to be Warren M. Christopher, whose public stature hardly needed another blow.

Not only did the former president assume a high-profile negotiating role usually accorded to a secretary of state, but Mr. Christopher is depicted in some news accounts as having opposed the mission.

He flatly denies that, and aides say his chief pitch was to have a high-level administration official along to spell out U.S. intentions to Haiti's dictators and not leave that job up to Mr. Carter.

But the fact that he was overruled even on that point offers just the latest piece of evidence that his influence on policy and his relationship with President Clinton are less than anticipated when he joined the administration.

No one expected a superstar when Mr. Clinton tapped the lawyer-diplomat, then 67, for the nation's top foreign-policy job. But he brought other qualities that were meant to boost a young president with no foreign policy experience, entering uncharted post-Cold War territory: a lustrous record as a negotiator, a cautious steadiness, decency and, above all, the president's trust.

Yet at two crucial moments -- on Haiti and earlier on North Korea -- Mr. Clinton has turned to former President Carter as a special envoy, not to the secretary, who, when he himself worked for Mr. Carter, had secured the release of American hostages in Iran after months of tortuous negotiations.

The administration's foreign policy on a number of fronts has been anything but steady, alarming allies with its unpredictability. And on some key issues, Mr. Clinton has overridden his gray eminence and accepted others' advice.

When Mr. Christopher returned from Europe in the spring of 1993 after failing to persuade allies to support a lifting of the Bosnian arms embargo and air strikes against Serbs, he nevertheless believed that, if the president took a strong leadership role, the allies would follow.

But Mr. Clinton backed away from the plan, leaning to the advice of, among others, his longtime friend Strobe Talbott.

Mr. Christopher opposed the Carter mission to North Korea earlier this year, arguing that the United States should stay on the course of seeking United Nations sanctions.

And several months ago, he also opposed granting a visa to Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing, because Mr. Adams had not yet renounced violence.

Setbacks surprising

For a skilled lawyer who carefully marshals his facts, such setbacks are surprising, and have disappointed some State Department officials who expected him to be a more powerful champion.

Part of the reason he hasn't been so is the flip-side of his character. While a dogged negotiator, he's also a conciliator and consensus-builder who keeps his own ego carefully in check.

And when a decision is made, no one is a more loyal spokesman, as he was yesterday in defending the Carter mission.

"I think President Carter is a particularly great national resource. He's been used very effectively. And I did not oppose his mission to Haiti," Mr. Christopher told NBC's "Today" program.

Characteristically, he also ducked an opportunity to criticize the way Mr. Carter had publicly bent over backward to show understanding and respect for Haiti's dictators.

"I think the result has been a very good one," he replied evasively. Aides credit his counsel for the fact that Mr. Clinton insisted that the Carter agreement in Haiti include a certain date for the dictators to leave power.

Complaints from Carter

His restraint was yesterday particularly notable because Mr. Carter, in an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, had complained about State Department opposition to his North Korea and Haiti missions, suggesting that both he and his wife, Rosalynn, were hurt by posture of a former subordinate.

The two men will meet in Georgia today. "I think if we have a conversation, it's more likely to be private and personal than official in character," Mr. Christopher said.

This kind of courtesy is even more apparent in private, undercutting reports of a bitter feud with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. Like Mr. Christopher, Mr. Lake was a close witness to past acrimony between national security advisers and secretaries of state, and took his present job

determined to avoid it.

But the severe drubbing the entire foreign-policy team has received for a series of Clinton zig-zags has taken its toll on the reputations of both men and prompted speculation of a major shake-up.

In Mr. Christopher's case, resignation talk is fueled by his wooden television performance in the age of CNN statesmen.

But it may be premature, because Mr. Christopher later this year or early next could still bring home a triumph in the form of an Israeli-Syrian deal that would drastically change the Middle East, scene of his most dogged diplomatic efforts.

His relationship with Mr. Clinton is something no one besides the two men can assess. The secretary talks to the president frequently, and often about subjects other than foreign policy.

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