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Why Is This Man Smiling? : Christopher: The secretary's long-view approach is alien to Washington, but it's gaining ground for U.S. foreign policy.

November 09, 1994|THOMAS PLATE | Thomas Plate, editor of the editorial pages, teaches an undergraduate course in ethics and the news media at UCLA.

Warren Christopher, the erudite Los Angeles lawyer whom President Clinton appointed his secretary of state two years ago, sometimes seems as comfortable with difficulty as he does with comfort, as if the only time he feels truly alive is when he is resting uneasily on a bed of nails.

That certainly was what he got when he led the commission investigating the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. And that's what he now has in his latest reincarnation: For it's hard to imagine that this ordinarily spectacular job has turned out to be everything he had ever dreamed of. The Cold War terminated the domestic U.S. consensus on foreign policy, and until very recently the President hardly seemed even to care that much about the world at large or the U.S. role in it. And then there came the inevitable foreign-policy setbacks--and yet this man is still smiling.

Yes, a smiling Christopher is what I found last week when we chatted in his seventh-floor office at the State Department. And this is the very man who Beltway bards predict won't hold his job much longer. Is that why he smiles--because he'll be coming home soon?

After just two days visiting the nation's capital, I could see why returning to Los Angeles would look so appealing. There's a nastiness in Washington, a meanness that rises in the morning and doesn't set until long after sundown.

If Christopher does manage to escape from Washington without getting sucked into the swamp, he aims to defy political gravity. He has been pilloried in the press, ignored by the President, insulted by the Chinese in Beijing and underestimated by foe and friend alike. But cream does rise, and in the last few months, what with the seeming success in Haiti and Kuwait, U.S. foreign policy doesn't look nearly as inept as it did just a year ago. But worries remain.

A few of them:

* The need for instant gratification: The CNN factor, as it is termed, obviously perturbs Christopher, an elegant man who seems to have been baptized while swathed in a pin-striped blue suit. Successful diplomacy, in his view, is never a dramatic home run but a succession of singles. Plodding patience, gritty determination and precise prioritization are essential. He feels that too many operators in Washington lack the requisite inner security to be effective, to ward off the constant, instant-feeding needs of the media and the common human urge for instant gratification. One senses that he thinks that both the nation and the Clinton Administration suffer as a result and that basing a foreign policy on what foreign-policy pictures CNN shows will fail, because no foreign policy can be successful unless it's sustained by public support.

* The need for more resources: Christopher feels hemmed in by the zero-sum game on Capitol Hill that limits America's ability to be influential. One imagines that he looks back on previous secretaries of state who not only went traveling with the backing of the big stick of the American military but also the big checkbook of the U.S. Treasury. He also appears to worry that too many people in the State Department are living in the past, when there seemed to be at least some money for almost any good idea. Those days are gone; there's a lot less money, and the need now is for select priorities.

* The need for better Foreign Service education: If our training of Foreign Service officers is too traditional, too unimaginative, he suggests, our foreign representation will suffer accordingly. Midcareer training to freshen State Department and Foreign Service officers is helpful, but the secretary worries about basic university training. Many of the new problems in international relations have little or no geographic content, he points out, and very few of them can be dealt with bilaterally. And yet the State Department, though now starting to reorganize, is still largely dominated by geographic bureaus; the emphasis remains on bilateral diplomacy. Thus American diplomacy must figure out how to relate to multilateral institutions and must emphasize powerful but often complex economic factors.

* The need for presidential involvement: Christopher tends to talk in purposeful generalities and doggedly neutral language, but does seem relieved that U.S. foreign policy is now starting to hit its stride. He notes that the President is spending more time than ever on foreign issues these days and that Clinton is more comfortable than ever with the issues and suddenly more decisive about them. When I posited the general theorem that all major foreign-policy decisions are presidential ones and that unless the President is personally focused on foreign policy, bad things happen, the secretary of state didn't disagree.

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