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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Warren Christopher : The Embattled Secretary of State Reflects on Foreign Entanglements

June 27, 1993|Doyle McManus and Norman Kempster | Doyle McManus and Norman Kempster cover foreign policy for The Times.

WASHINGTON — Warren Christopher's first five months as the nation's 62nd secretary of state have been a diplomatic roller-coaster ride: a dignified start succeeded by a series of gut-wrenching twists and turns. Christopher attained early successes in launching an aid plan for Russia and restarting Arab-Israeli peace talks, but he soon found himself embroiled in acrimonious debate over what the United States should do to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In February, Christopher announced the United States was seeking a settlement in Bosnia that protected the republic's Muslims and did not reward Serbian forces for their conquests--however, he has conspicuously failed to achieve either aim. His attempt to persuade Britain and France to lift an arms embargo on Bosnia met only embarrassing rebuffs. Christopher then changed course and backed a European plan for "safe havens"--but neither the United States nor the Europeans followed up to enforce the scheme. The chain of events left U.S. policy on Bosnia in disarray--and prompted charges that Christopher had bungled his first real crisis.

Outwardly, at least, Christopher is unruffled by the criticism of his stewardship. "I wouldn't pretend that it doesn't affect me somewhat, but I just have to plow through it," he said recently. "I know that it's part of the territory in a job this big."

The secretary greets visitors affably in his elegant, cherry-paneled office on the seventh floor of the State Department. He admits to missing some things about Los Angeles--principally the Dodgers, whose progress he follows passionately. But he leaves no doubt that he considers this job the crowning challenge of a long and already distinguished career--which earlier included a term as deputy secretary of state and the job of chairman of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department.

When serious questions begin, Christopher sits stiffly in a Duncan Phyfe-style armchair, the jacket of his pin-stripe suit carefully buttoned, his expression wary and unblinking. The bookshelf behind his antique desk displays nine volumes of Jimmy Carter's presidential papers, a memento of the last Administration he served.

Question: Because of what looked like zig-zagging on Bosnia, you've been hit with charges from indecision to lack of vision, even ineptitude. Where do you think those perceptions come from?

Answer: When we came into office in January of this year, the situation in Bosnia had already reached the point where I think the only way to end the fighting, the only way to compel a settlement, was to have used ground troops--hundreds of thousands of ground troops . . . . None of our military planners thought that air power alone would have brought Serbia to its knees . . . .

Given that choice, the President made what I think was absolutely the right decision. That is that the United States would not use ground troops to compel a settlement in Bosnia.

In this situation, the decision not to use massive force is a much harder one than the decision to do so. If the President had decided to go in massively, there would have been short-term popularity, but, in the long term, the American people would not have sustained that--for good reason. That is because the United States' vital interests are not sufficiently involved for us to have withstood the cost, the entanglement and the deaths that would have resulted.

Moreover, I think the American people would have soon realized that there was no satisfactory exit strategy. The United States would have been there either permanently, or as soon as we left, the parties would have been battling again within weeks of our departure.

Q: But judged by the objective--which was to prevent the dismemberment of a member of the United Nations--hasn't the diplomatic effort failed, and aren't there consequences to that?

A: The diplomatic effort has not yet failed. The diplomatic effort goes on . . . to try to achieve a new settlement that's agreeable to the parties and that retains the entity of Bosnia. That is probably where this has to come out.

Q: Much of the criticism, though, hasn't been about the substance of your position so much as the style of your getting there--that there isn't a clear sense of direction.

A: I'd have to challenge that. I think that, on the basics, we are right where we were before. First, we would deal with this on a multilateral basis. We would not go it alone. Second, we will not use ground troops for purposes of compelling a settlement. We would implement a good-faith settlement which has satisfactory enforcement provisions. Those two basic principles have not changed. Also, what's not changed is our effort to try to be helpful from a humanitarian standpoint, to impose sanctions and perhaps the most important principle of all, which is . . . to avoid the spreading of the conflict. Hence, our decision to place a limited number of troops in Macedonia in the peacekeeper observer corps.

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