Secretary of state lets others enjoy limelight

September 17, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't Bosnia or China that beamed a late-summer spotlight on Warren Christopher. It was Colin Powell's revelation that he had been offered the secretary of state's job late last year.

But for that, Americans outside the capital might have wondered whether Warren Christopher was still secretary of state. Working the phones while vacationing, he was little seen publicly as the United States averted an angry confrontation with China and mounted a military and diplomatic effort to end the nightmare in the Balkans.

Mr. Christopher could never be accused of overreaching.

Unlike such publicity guzzlers as Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr. -- to mention two predecessors -- Mr. Christopher willingly yields the limelight and big chunks of responsibility to others and contents himself with being one voice among a half-dozen in setting U.S. foreign policy.

In last week's major achievement, getting the Bosnian Serbs to lift the siege of Sarajevo, practically all the credit and the limelight went to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, culminating Friday in an ABC "Nightline" show in which the program's reporters were with Mr. Holbrooke every moment of the way through his arduous negotiations in several capitals.

Secretary Christopher had only a few seconds, and then to endorse Mr. Holbrooke's performance.

"As you know, my style tends to be a modest one," Mr. Christopher said in an interview last week.

But in a capital where star quality often equals clout, Mr. Christopher's resolute lack of showmanship continues to spark questions about his effectiveness and influence.

Under a president repeatedly faulted for erratic or reactive handling of world affairs, his low profile feeds the impression of a foreign policy operation without a central figure or a strategic core.

It was Mr. Christopher's luck that just when things were starting to go right for Mr. Clinton's foreign policy team, others were seen doing the heavy lifting.

Undersecretary Peter Tarnoff advanced relations with China. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake lined up Europeans behind a new American policy toward Bosnia. Mr. Holbrooke followed up with the high-profile arm-twisting that produced two significant breakthroughs toward a settlement. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was sent to Moscow to mollify the Russians over the bombing of Bosnian Serb targets.

For his part, Mr. Christopher faced indignities. First came former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Powell's disclosure. Mr. Powell wrote in his autobiography that President Clinton told him last December that Mr. Christopher wanted to quit and asked him to take the job.

Recounting how he declined the offer, Mr. Powell added this barb: "Left unspoken were my reservations about the amorphous way the administration handled foreign policy, a style with which I was already familiar. I did not see how I could fit back into this operation without changes so radical that the president would probably have difficulty making them."

While Mr. Christopher suffered through this assault, a Senate appropriations panel hacked away at the State Department budget to the point where fully one-fourth of America's embassies and consulates abroad would have to be shut down, and U.S. contributions to international organizations slashed.

Mr. Christopher is far more active than is readily apparent. A slim 69-year-old who offsets his wrinkled visage with well-cut suits and carefully chosen ties and pocket scarves, he is often at work by 7 a.m. after a two-mile jog with his bodyguards and is in daily contact with the president either in meetings, by phone or by written memo.

Through the latest, summer-long turn in Bosnia, where NATO bombs, American diplomacy and Serbian military setbacks have yielded new promise, Mr. Christopher has weighed in with advice, even from abroad.

At a London conference in July, he enlisted France and Britain for the first time in promising "substantial and decisive" military retaliation against Bosnian Serbs if they threatened the civilian population of Gorazde.

Wednesday night, after Mr. Holbrooke finished his 11-hour negotiations with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on a withdrawal of Serbian heavy weapons from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, Mr. Christopher was on the phone with colleagues from 9 until midnight and again starting at 5 a.m. Thursday.

Later, he was on the Hill trying to recoup his department's budget losses, which he fears would make the United States AWOL in many world hot spots, such as Burundi.

His step-back approach is not just one of style, he says, but the only way to manage an array of complicated world affairs and prevent the United States from being caught off-guard by an unexpected crisis.

"I like to have a broad span of control, to make as sure as I can that the secretary of state does not neglect important areas," he says.

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