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Too Good to Last? : Did Thomas Pickering do his job too well at the U. N.? That's what some insiders are saying in the wake of his reassignment.

April 27, 1992|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — At a recent luncheon for a score of American executives, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger introduced the guest speaker, Thomas R. Pickering, the departing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"Our distinguished ambassador . . . " Kissinger reportedly intoned, pausing for effect, "too distinguished for some people."

Kissinger's ironic inside joke alluded to a widespread belief among American and foreign officials, both at the United Nations and in Washington, that Secretary of State James A. Baker III is transferring Pickering to India because Pickering did his job too well.

Baker's problem with him, according to this view, was subtle and complex: Pickering succeeded because of his ability to think quickly and negotiate swiftly without waiting for Washington to plot his every move and word.

But that independence--no matter how much it helped the Bush Administration in forging the alliance against Iraq in the Persian Gulf crisis, no matter how closely Pickering followed the basic tenets of U.S. policy--annoyed Baker and his coterie of top aides. It made them feel Pickering was not under control.

Baker, however, insists that Pickering's move was simply a normal transfer at the end of three years of duty. Asked at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing why he was transferring the ambassador, Baker replied, "Because the President instituted a policy . . . for three years of service for both Foreign Service and career diplomats."

"So Tom's three years is up?" asked Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).

"Yes, sir, absolutely," Baker replied. "And for no other reason."

Baker's explanation, however, has evoked a good deal of skepticism.

"It's pretty thin, isn't it?" notes a senior French diplomat.

"Even if you could justify the three-year rule," says Richard N. Gardner, a Columbia University professor of international law who has served both as an ambassador and as a State Department official, "since when have we considered the U.N. ambassador as just another ambassador?

"Here you have a man who is certainly the equal of Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Goldberg, two U.N. ambassadors I worked with and used to think were the best, and, in some regards, he is better," Gardner says. "Here we are in a crucial moment in the history of the U.N. . . . At this very moment, you take out this superior ambassador and replace him with someone who has no experience at the U.N. How does that serve the national interests of this country?"

In May, Pickering will be replaced by Edward Perkins, 63, director general of the Foreign Service, the official in charge of personnel at the State Department. Perkins is best known as the only black American to serve as ambassador to South Africa. Many diplomats doubt he will ever annoy Baker with any shows of independence.

"Ed is an unusual guy," says a retired American ambassador who knows both Pickering and Perkins well. "He is kind of Lincoln-esque, large, craggy-featured, a man of tremendous honesty, very deeply committed to principle. . . .

"But," this former envoy adds of Perkins, "he is not inclined to be light with people or quick on his feet. He has probity, solidity. He is a man who doesn't get rattled, doesn't get pushed around. Those were great strengths dealing with South Africa. But these strengths are his weaknesses at the U.N.

"You have got to be very fast on your feet at the U.N. You can't consult Washington for every give and take. Pickering was fantastic for the job up there, but I don't think Perkins is the right man for the job."

The impending change is the talk of the United Nations, sowing puzzlement among foreign diplomats along with a disturbing sense that Pickering's move may reflect a lack of commitment by the Administration to the world body, despite all the President's rhetoric about a new world order.

Pickering, a tall, balding, 60-year-old, had served as ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, Israel and El Salvador before President Bush named him ambassador to the United Nations--only the third career foreign service officer to hold that position.

Pickering refuses to discuss his transfer with reporters. But according to several sources, all speaking anonymously, he had mainly irritated two State Department officials: John R. Bolton--assistant secretary for international organizations and the ambassador's superior on the department's organizational charts--and, far more important, Margaret Tutwiler, assistant secretary for public affairs and longtime Baker confidante, who acts as the department spokeswoman.

"Pickering would say things at the United Nations," says a staff member of a key decision maker at State, "that were not contrary to State Department policy and might even have logically followed State Department policy but had not been specifically approved by the top people. . . .

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