A Man of Good Intentions

by Charles Lane | July 29, 1996

Profound disappointment creased the usually impassive face of Warren Christopher the night of May 29. The secretary of state and his staff on the seventh floor of the State Department were hearing about the election returns from Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, a committed foe of trading the Golan Heights for peace with Hafez al-Assad's Syria, had defeated Shimon Peres, Israeli architect of the land-for-peace enterprise. Christopher had invested more than three years of effort, as well as presidential, national and personal prestige in trying to broker such a deal. Syria was "the key to completing the circle of peace," he had said. That circle was to crown Christopher's own lifetime of public service. Now it all suddenly seemed unattainable.

Christopher will probably go to his grave wondering how it might have been different. Here's one thought: Netanyahu won by only 29,000 votes, thanks to a 55 percent majority among Israeli Jews. (Israeli Arabs backed Peres.) If during the Israeli campaign Assad had made a confidence-building gesture toward the Israeli public, he could well have tilted fence-sitters into Peres's column. Instead, Assad made trouble. He sat out the regional anti-terrorism summit called in response to suicide bombings in Israel. The Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon that he and his Iranian allies control rained Katyusha rockets on northern Israel; though Peres struck back, the largely ineffectual barrage reinforced doubts about his qualifications as a military leader.

And Assad went out of his way to humiliate Christopher, the American messenger of land-for-peace, when he flew to the region to broker a cease-fire. The Syrian dictator forced Christopher to wait two hours while he met the Russian foreign minister, then stood him up completely for another appointment. Was this all the diplomatic capital the Clinton administration's most skilled negotiator had earned in two dozen missions to Damascus, the capital of a state designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of international terrorism?

You can fault Christopher for trying too hard, but not necessarily for trying. If the engagement of Assad was an illusion, it was shared by the Bush administration and by both Peres and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They figured Assad's loss of his erstwhile Soviet sponsor, coupled with his isolation in an Arab world moving toward recognition of Israel, would render him more accommodating. Should the U.S. have told its ally not to pursue the opportunity, or withheld the services of its most skilled facilitator?

Still, Christopher's stewardship at Foggy Bottom was not supposed to culminate on such an ambiguous note. He came in as a certified heavyweight, with a glittering resume. Former deputy secretary under Cyrus Vance and Ed Muskie at Jimmy Carter's State Department. Consummate deal-closer who clinched the Iran hostage negotiations. Managing partner of Los Angeles's white-shoe O'Melveny & Meyers law firm. Chairman of the commission that had rooted out police brutality in L.A. after the Rodney King beating. Mention Christopher, and the adjective that comes back again and again is "able."

Another is "uncharismatic"--though not always in a pejorative sense. Christopher makes a mystique of his being preternaturally quiet, modest and deliberate. "Steadiness" is the attribute he prizes most. Though sometimes the rail-thin secretary seems as if he might disappear into his tailored double-breasted suits and French cuffs, even these incongruous clothes are an effort to project seriousness. "I always thought that I would do things in a conservative way to maximize the progressiveness of my policy positions," he told Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times. "If you are courteous and prudent, you can advance causes and advance ideas that would be unacceptable for others."

If Christopher's surface traditionalism is unexpected in a power broker from flashy L.A., it may be because its origins lie in the stark landscape of tiny Scranton, North Dakota. His father, Ernest, was a banker, school-board president and a New Dealer. The Depression forced him to foreclose on his friends' homes, as young Warren watched. The anguish took its toll. At 49, he suffered a stroke. The Christophers moved to Hollywood, hoping the climate would help Ernest recover, but he died in 1941. The tragedy forced Christopher to work to support the family, an experience of poverty he never forgot.

Over the next quarter-century, Warren Christopher was to recreate in himself the role of socially concerned establishmentarian his father had played on the smaller stage of Scranton. Building on his father's New Dealism, Christopher emerged from the crucible of early cold war California--the time of the Hollywood Ten and Richard Nixon's anti-Communist campaigns--as an avatar of Democratic good intentions, a '50s liberal of the Eleanor Roosevelt-Adlai Stevenson school.

At Stanford Law School, Christopher was the star pupil of the dynamic young dean, Carl Spaeth, who had served at the State Department under Nelson Rockefeller during the war and attended the original United Nations conference in San Francisco. It was Spaeth, Christopher said during a speech at Stanford Law earlier this year, who "first stimulated my interest in the work in which I am now engaged full time." Under his wing, Christopher became enamored of liberal "wise men" like Dean Acheson and George Marshall. He kindled to the notion of a world order based on international law.

Following a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that Spaeth secured for him, Christopher joined O'Melveny and was recruited as a speechwriter for Democrat Pat Brown, who defeated William Knowland for governor in 1958. "Responsible liberalism" was Christopher's contribution to Brown's political lexicon, as well as his own evolving creed. In 1965 Governor Brown named Christopher to the McCone Commission that looked into the Watts Riots. Christopher drafted a report that today seems a period piece of Great Society liberalism--a plea for more jobs, schools and housing to cure "the witch's brew" of unemployment and alienation among black Angelenos. Christopher challenged, discreetly, the retrograde O'Melveny line on race in a Stanford Law Review article calling the Voting Rights Act "an appropriate, if not belated, effort to preserve the integrity of our nation's ethos."

His dedication to earnest, internationalist liberalism--which Christopher has carried with him for years--has often been overlooked in analyses that focus on his propensity for lawyering and negotiation. When he was first named secretary of state by President-elect Clinton, Christopher, in a show of uncharacteristic exuberance, called the appointment "a dream come true." Some people took this to mean he had finally made up for being passed over by Carter when Vance quit the post in 1980. It also alluded to the opportunities he saw for himself and his worldview at a rare, plastic moment in history.

Like Acheson, present at the creation of the cold war order, Christopher felt he had been picked to create a new, lasting global foundation. "Not since the late 1940s has our nation faced the challenge of shaking and shaping an entirely new foreign policy for a world that's fundamentally changed," he told his Senate confirmation hearing. "We need to design a new strategy for protecting American interests by laying the foundations for a more just and more stable world."

Almost immediately, everything went off the rails. Nasty crises in Haiti and Somalia consumed attention that had been budgeted for the Middle East, Russia and China. Even more dire was the Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, a phenomenon the likes of which American foreign policy hadn't had to confront since the 1940s. Christopher never seemed to grasp what all the moral fuss was about. Dispatched to Europe in May 1993 to sell the allies on Clinton's policy of arming the Bosnians and bombing the Serbs, Christopher struck out. Returning, he moaned to Congress that Bosnia was "a problem from hell." He chalked it up to "ancient hatreds." He tsk-tsked about "atrocities on all sides."

Within the White House, his line was "don't Americanize the issue," Elizabeth Drew reports in On the Edge. The U.S., he said, could probably pressure the Europeans into using more force, "but it isn't worth it." As one participant in the policy recalls, "he didn't really want to play. . .. It wasn't like he was wrong. He just felt it was his job to shave it, to avoid having the problem overshadow the rest of the administration." By summer, Christopher, with help from Clinton's political advisers, had moved the crisis to the back burner. "The United States," he said on July 21, "is doing all that it can consistent with our national interest."

On China, too, Christopher fumbled. And this was an area in which he had expertise, having carried out the delicate mission of informing Taiwan in 1979 that Jimmy Carter was going to normalize relations with the People's Republic. As managing partner at O'Melveny, Christopher had visited China and tried to involve the firm more deeply in the Asia trade. In a 1985 Los Angeles Times op-ed, he celebrated China's rise to superpower status, and predicted that pro-democracy reformers would soon gain the upper hand. And compared to Bosnia, U.S. interests in China were more tangible: the investments and exports of corporations like the aircraft manufacturers whom Christopher had himself represented; arms sales; nuclear non-proliferation. He even ventured that U.S. policy had been too "Eurocentric," given the boom in Asia.

But China's stubborn dictatorship was not about to reform itself. When Christopher visited China as secretary of state in March, 1994, the instinctive respect he had expressed for the Chinese as a lawyer seeking to do business among them was not exactly reciprocated. The hard-line leaders rounded up dissidents even as he sat and importuned them about freedom. In a plaintive Washington Post op-ed, Christopher responded to critics, noting the need to "balance" the two equal interests of free politics and free markets. "My purpose was to inform China's leaders of the urgent need to make further progress on human rights, and to reaffirm our intention to engage China constructively on the many issues where our interests coincide." He had done so, some bad "atmospherics" notwithstanding. What was the problem?

By the time of the Republican sweep in the 1994 mid-term election, Clinton's foreign policy was generally seen as a failure. Christopher, appointed to keep foreign crises from undermining the president's domestic agenda, was blamed. "You couldn't wake up in the morning without seeing speculation about who the next secretary of state was going to be," says Winston Lord, Christopher's Asia aide. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake was encroaching on Christopher's turf. Fed up with the infighting and bad press, Christopher told Clinton in December 1994 he was ready to resign. Clinton sounded out Colin Powell and then Sam Nunn for the job, but when they said no, he asked Christopher to stay on.

Ironically, Christopher's recovery began with this turn of events. Clinton's failure to find anyone to replace him effectively renewed his mandate--albeit more as the general contractor of foreign policy than as its architect. He more or less ceded the initiative on issues such as Haiti and Bosnia to Lake; within his own department, figures such as Strobe Talbott on Russia and Richard Holbrooke on Bosnia became power centers unto themselves; Vice President Al Gore took a higher profile on Russia, the global environment, nuclear weapons. But at least now Christopher's bureaucratic foes had to accept that he was at Foggy Bottom to stay. "He's shown toughness and resilience," says Lord. "He stuck in there."

Viewed as Christopher himself would view it--ina spirit of detachment--the record since is not without its accomplishments. nato's eastward expansion gradually advances. Largely thanks to the administration's decision to change course and downplay the U.S.-Japan trade deficit, disputes with Tokyo have given way to a renewed mutual security pact. gatt was successfully concluded; the Mexican bailout basically worked. Troops went to Haiti, restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and stemmed a tide of refugees--without casualties. The U.S.-brokered Dayton accords have brought at least temporary peace to Bosnia, enforced by another casualty-free American deployment.

Certain problems, it turns out, were best dealt with by Christopher's all-purpose prescription: "steadiness." In the wake of Boris Yeltsin's defeat of the Communists, it appears to have been wise to wait out the vicissitudes of the giant country's transformation. On the Korean peninsula, Christopher's course of compromise probably has conceded the Stalinists in the North a nuke or two, yet this was defensible in a situation where the U.S. held few cards. There was no stomach in this country, South Korea, or Japan, for economic sanctions that might have led to war. By the time the U.S. and its allies deliver a peaceful reactor to the North Koreans as payment for their freeze on bomb development, the Communists may be gone anyway.

Yet neither Christopher nor any other Clintonite has truly met the lofty goal of "shaping a new foreign policy for a new world." For that, Christopher would need more than just his ingrained sobriety, good intentions and diplomatic skills. He would need a way to distinguish between those deals we will pursue and those we will refuse even to entertain. That, in turn, would require thinking of the U.S. not only as the leader but as the rightful hegemon of the post-cold war world--and integrating the use of coercive military power as a means for backing up American concepts of world order. It is this kind of robust moral imagination that Christopher has never really possessed.

In speeches and articles he wrote after his stint in the Carter administration, Christopher provided the most extensive articulation of his vision. He proclaimed his belief in "practical idealism" (an anodyne formulation reminiscent of "responsible liberalism"). "The true pragmatist," he told the 1981 Bates College commencement, "is one who understands that idealism is one of our vital assets in today's world." But ideals were, for Christopher, a matter of policy process, not policy goals. The point of foreign policy was not to reshape the world or its component nations according to American norms (though that would be nice). It was to do business on an honorable, good-faith basis with everyone, based only on "an objective judgment whether the people claiming to be the government actually have control, and whether they are willing to live up to minimum diplomatic standards. . .. Nonrecognition never has and never will unseat a government we do not like," he said in an address titled "On the Virtues of Talking."

He prescribed "managed competition" with the Soviets, greased by "inducements" such as Western investment in the Soviet oil industry. He saw Ronald Reagan's "moral crusade" against Soviet Communism as "gratuitously harmful," "inflammatory," "fanaticism." "From the premise that the Soviet Union is our enemy," he said, "it would seek to bring down the Soviet system." This would yield a hard-line backlash in Moscow, maybe war. But history has shown the opposite: radical political change in the enemy camp was the prerequisite for peace, not a threat to it. Reagan had provoked the rise of Gorbachev, not a new Stalin. Reagan was the pragmatic idealist.

As for the most consuming episode of his service, the hostage crisis, it showed, Christopher said, that America was "quietly strong," a successful, low-key talker. The U.S. managed to "preserve its honor"--and honor, in the sense of absorbing setbacks stoically, has always meant a lot to the man from Scranton--"not by retaliation or vengeance, but by preserving the lives of the hostages." The resolution of the crisis vindicated "steady diplomacy in pursuit of our interests, in contrast to the impetuous resort to force where its use would damage our interests."

Even among Iranians, Christopher had found men capable of establishing a dispassionate, no-bullshit atmosphere. He proudly recalled his meeting with Iran's emissary: "I told him, `Look I have a lot of speeches I could make to you, and you probably have some too, but let's put those aside.' And we did. Our discussions were almost wholly without polemics or posturing." It was the rest of the world that needed such clear-headedness. Among the American public, Christopher wrote, a "better perspective . . . might have made the episode more understandable and encouraged a calmer and more deliberate reaction. . .. The hatred of the Iranians for the United States could be understood only against the background of the Shah and U.S. support for him."

Christopher saw force as something you threaten to deter your adversary from an unwanted action, as a quiet threat from Carter had caused Iran to abandon plans for a trial of hostages. Force as a coercive or punitive tool was usually not only ineffective, but dishonorable. "It would not be an especially appealing or useful depiction of America," he wrote, "to have it known that when we are confronted by uncivilized groups we readily jettison our own standards." But it wouldn't be especially useful to have it known we'll never lash out, either. Hadn't President-elect Reagan's sheer unpredictability, which Christopher himself pointedly noted to his Iranian negotiating partners, spurred the hostage deal?

Christopher's interesting record on the use of force within the United States makes an instructive contrast. As LBJ's deputy attorney general, Christopher visited riot-torn Detroit and urged the president to put down the violence with Army troops. When riots swept Washington, D.C. in 1968, Christopher again promptly advised the president to deploy the Army. Twenty-plus years later, when L.A. erupted at the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, Christopher told Mayor Tom Bradley to quit dithering and get the Marines. ("I had been through that bull in Detroit," Christopher wrote in The Los Angeles Times.) Bradley authorized Christopher to call the White House himself.

These decisions seemed easier not only because the danger loomed outside Christopher's window, but because of the clear legal and moral authority of the government to use force to keep domestic order. In the international sphere, such questions are rarely decided by clear laws. The president's judgment, his confidence in the rightness of his cause, must govern the choice. Christopher, who believes in the vital importance of seeing things from the other guy's perspective--indeed, of trying to imagine why he might have good reason not to like you--seems skeptical that such moral certainty can often be attained in America's dealings abroad.

To be sure, Christopher has, as secretary of state, made Iran a pariah--even more than did Reagan himself. The Clinton administration has not relaxed the pressure on Iraq. Yet elsewhere an inability to cut to the chase corrodes U.S. policy. If the peace process in Bosnia is to retain credibility, the U.S. may have to quit importuning Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for help in removing war criminals from power, and arrest them. Christopher, whose contribution to the Dayton deal was to stage a "take it or leave it" encounter with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in which he demanded that the Bosnians yield the Serbs a wider corridor connecting their territories, is unlikely to see things in those terms. Eager to preserve the one-year U.S. "exit strategy," he and Anthony Lake have urged that elections proceed in all three entities of Bosnia, based on a phony certification that the conditions for a "free and fair" vote exist, even though Serbs will be voting in an atmosphere controlled by war criminals.

China is, indeed, a much more complex matter, a huge and culturally alien country with which the United States has many issues to resolve. Here, too, however, the time may be approaching when constructive engagement cannot be sustained. In April 1995, a miscommunication between Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen gave Beijing the impression that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui wouldn't be granted a visa to visit the U.S. When Congress forced the administration to let Teng in anyway, Beijing felt double-crossed by Christopher and cut off all contact with him for the next eight months. In February of this year, U.S. warships defused the Taiwan Straits crisis. The best the administration has done since is a Chinese promise to quit pirating U.S. intellectual property. The State Department is currently fly-specking CIA reports on Chinese missile technology exports, hoping to avoid a showdown over that.

In his 1985 op-ed, Christopher called it "the height of presumption . . . to regard the nation of 1 billion people as just a playing card in the U.S. deck." But if China is no longer vital as an anti-Soviet card, what argument remains for non-confrontationalism? The administration's approach, recently reformulated in a major address by Christopher that set the stage for a quiet "strategic" discussion in Beijing by Lake, is to give engagement yet another chance--this time at a higher level, with annual presidential summits.

How does this relate to Christopher's losing bet on Syria? Around the time of Christopher's refused resignation, the Clinton administration, fighting for relevancy after the Republican landslide, decided to spotlight foreign policy. "Where can Clinton look for the sort of high-profile accomplishment that could boost his sagging approval ratings as he readies his reelection campaign?" The Los Angeles Times asked on Christmas Day, 1994. "Astonishingly, many aides point to Syria, for decades a blight on America's Middle East policy. ... A breakthrough is seen for 1995." Christopher made himself indispensable to the task.

Christopher first visited Assad back in February 1993, securing a promise that Syria would, in principle, settle for less than an immediate handover of the Golan. Five months later, in July 1993, Christopher got Syria to call off a Hezbollah barrage that had been met by Israeli countershelling. But in September the Israel-PLO deal infuriated Assad. He froze discussions, not budging even when Christopher curried favor with a transfer of used American jetliners to Syria from Kuwait. The New York Times reported that Syria's foreign minister "showed no appreciation . . . but regarded it as a virtually meaningless gesture."

Only an audience with Clinton in Geneva in January 1994 convinced Assad to let Christopher resume shuttling. By August, Christopher got the two sides to agree to talk first about the military aspects of a Golan withdrawal and to table the knottier matter of timing. In December 1995, Christopher--now working with Peres, who was more flexible than Rabin--arranged a negotiating format that Assad could accept: talks between senior diplomats from the two countries, with Americans present. "We stand on the threshold of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict," Christopher said on January 18, 1996.

In hindsight, none of the "progress" was inconsistent with the view that Assad was stringing Peres and Christopher along, accumulating what benefits he could from U.S. attention. As Daniel Pipes wrote acidly, "his goal is not peace but a peace process." If Christopher isn't careful, people may get the same idea about him. Assad needed the U.S. much more than the U.S. needed him. Christopher might have fared better if he had waited until the conflict was truly ripe for resolution--until Assad was desperate. In this sense, Christopher's persistence was itself a misconception of his "steadiness." He had failed to plumb the motivation of his counterpart, in all its bloody-mindedness.

Since the Israeli election, Christopher has kept a brave front. According to members of the efficient, admiring and protective staff he has assembled around him, barely two minutes after he had absorbed the news of Netanyahu's win, he was already plotting strategy. He scheduled a highly visible voyage to the Middle East, where he huddled both with Netanyahu and with moderate Arabs worried by Bibi's views about the West Bank settlements (and Christopher's own errant remark, later "clarified," that the U.S. might "adapt" its policy to Israel's on that issue).

But the exercise had a valedictory quality. No one would blame this loyal Democrat, recently turned 70, if he took the new presidential term as a cue to bow out and submit his record to history. Then again, he could focus on shoring up the U.S.'s strategic base in the Gulf. The June 25 terrorist attack outside a United States Air Force compound in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen American airmen--and created a wave of trepidation. At the time, Christopher hastened from Cairo to the scene. Struggling to contain his emotions, he toured the rubble, comforted the wounded and swore to prosecute the authors of this "dastardly act of cowardice . . . no matter how long it takes." On July 3, as Christopher left for a well-earned vacation in California, The Washington Post reported that suspects in the attack might have received assistance from Syria.

This article originally ran in the July 29, 1996, issue of the magazine.

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