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Discusion: Warren Christopher Retires

November 7, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now some thoughts about the four-year tenure of Warren Christopher as Secretary of State. They are those of Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee; William Hyland, deputy national security adviser for President Ford, former editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine; William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy Magazine and an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration; and Jim Hoagland, columnist for the Washington Post. Jim Hoagland, what is your assessment of Warren Christopher as Secretary of State?

JIM HOAGLAND, Washington Post: Well, I think Warren Christopher will be remembered as a man whose strength was also his greatest weakness. By that, I mean he was a man without an agenda of his own. He was completely loyal to Bill Clinton, particularly on Bosnia, at a time when the President didn’t really know his own mind, Warren Christopher refused to get out in front of him, or to try to argue a particular case with him. He viewed himself, quite frankly, as the President’s lawyer. And he was there to make the President’s case to other people. That left him without significant accomplishments of his own, without significant initiatives, or even visions of what American’s foreign policy would be. And I think that’s how he will be remembered.

JIM LEHRER: Lee Hamilton.

REP. LEE HAMILTON, (D) Indiana: First, I think he’s a very classy gentleman. I’ve just come off the campaign trail where political discourse is,–has a lot of rough edges. Warren Christopher is a remarkable public servant, not just in this administration but in previous administrations as well, a man of quiet pregnancy, dignity, good judgment, strong character. I think he’s had some remarkable accomplishments as Secretary of State in conducting the foreign policy of the United States. We’re at peace. We had thugs in Haiti; they’re gone now. We had a war in Bosnia. The Dayton Agreement was largely Christopher’s work, a great achievement I think in American diplomacy. I think he’s handled the Middle East about as well as it can be handled. The Mexican agreement–the bailout–was well done. He saw the linkages between economic policy and, and foreign policy more clearly than any secretary of state I’ve seen. And I think he has come to appreciate the linkage between force and diplomacy. I think it’s a very good tenure as Secretary of State, and I think the American people owe him a great debt of gratitude.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Hyland.

WILLIAM HYLAND, Former Editor, Foreign Affairs Magazine: Well, I can’t agree with that assessment. I think it’s difficult to separate Christopher, a dignified gentleman, intelligent, competent, hard-working, from the overall foreign policy of the Clinton administration, which I think is a jumbled mess– despite Bosnia, which I don’t really think the United States gets that much credit for. And if you give credit, you’d have to give it to Richard Holbrooke. I think they inherited a very–

JIM LEHRER: Richard Holbrooke, who was the principal negotiator in Dayton.

WILLIAM HYLAND: Yes. And I think–and before, even before Dayton, bringing about the Bosnian peace accords. I think they came into office with a very strong hand. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union demised– really good opportunity to build a new structure of American foreign policy. And I don’t think they did it. And I think for the first three years at least, they were on an ideological binge of, of sort of multilateralism, which I think Madeleine Albright described the policy which came to grief in Somalia, and then they had enlargement of democracy, which I don’t think accomplished much–a lot of ideology until the President woke up, I think, in 1995, in the wake of the ’94 elections, and realized that he was going into a re-election with Bosnia on his back, and some other foreign policy problems in the Middle East. Then they galvanized themselves, and I think Christopher did a good job for that last year. But overall, I think it was not a good record.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Maynes.

WILLIAM MAYNES, Foreign Policy Magazine: I think that criticism is really twelve months–eighteen months out of date. It’s clear that the administration got off to a rough start, but I think the last eighteen months they basically found their way. The administration was being criticized as one that wanted to be loved, wanted to follow the polls, not be respected. I think in the last 18 months they’ve taken a number of decisions in the teeth of public opposition but that were the right decision–

JIM LEHRER: Such as–such as–

WILLIAM MAYNES: The right to go into Bosnia with the troops was an unpopular decision. 80 percent of the American people opposed the loan to Mexico. Most analysts thought that the administration was making a mistake backing Yeltsin so early when Yeltsin was only in single digits in the public opinion–

JIM LEHRER: Before last summer’s election.

WILLIAM MAYNES: That’s right. And Haiti, which was strongly opposed by–by many people–in all those cases with Christopher’s guidance, the administration, I think, took the right decision, and as a result, I think the President went into this election was people feeling we’ve got a commander in chief. We’ve got somebody who knows how to use diplomacy, use power, and I think it contributed to the aura that helped re-elect the President.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on the difference between Bill Hyland and Jim Hoagland in terms of Jim Hoagland says that– Warren Christopher doesn’t–didn’t come out with any of his own accomplishments–and yet, Bill Hyland says you can’t separate whatever–you can’t separate anything within foreign policy from the secretary of state.

WILLIAM MAYNES: Well, I think if your secretary of state, you participate in these major decisions, you’re the chief adviser to the President, it is the President who decided to send the troops to Bosnia. It is the President who decided to loan money to Mexico, but obviously Christopher deserves a lot of credit for participating in these decisions if you think they were the right decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Do you–what is your assessment, Bill Hyland, of–of the level of Warren Christopher’s participation in these decisions–whether you think they were good, bad, or indifferent at any given time.

WILLIAM HYLAND: I think it was quite erratic. I have the feeling that Tony Lake made decisions that Christopher–

JIM LEHRER: National security adviser.

WILLIAM HYLAND: The national security adviser made a number of decisions with the President that Christopher either opposed or went along with very reluctantly. I think that was also true of so many other members of the–of the administration. Talbott, I think, really–

JIM LEHRER: Strobe Talbott, the No. 2 guy in the–

WILLIAM HYLAND: Right.

JIM LEHRER: –still is, right?

WILLIAM HYLAND: Ran Russian policy. Christopher really focused almost exclusively on the Middle East. And to pick up Bill Maynes’ point, I think that the record was that when the President decided to retaliate only two months ago on the Iraqi– mess in Kurdistan, he found himself isolated internationally, compared to where Bush was five years ago, and so I think that has–is not just a question of the first three years, which were bad, but even more recently with having Arafat and Netanyahu and–into the White House and presiding over that–that really was a very bad show.

JIM LEHRER: Jim, your point is that–that he was the President’s lawyer, rather than the President’s policy recommended and formulator, correct?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think that’s right. He was an implementer. I mean, on Bosnia, for example, I think the record is very clear that he did an excellent job in supporting what Richard Holbrooke did. He did not take the initiative there. He waited for Holbrooke to grab that bull by the horns, and then at the right moments, he came in and he backed Holbrooke up, but I don’t see him as an initiator.

JIM LEHRER: The President said today–the President said today that it was–it was Christopher who said, no, we’re not leaving Dayton yet. He made him go back one more time to get the deal. It wasn’t Holbrooke; it was Christopher.

WILLIAM MAYNES: Christopher stayed up until about 3 o’clock in the morning trying to get this deal. This is a man who’s 71 years old, who stayed with this negotiation until he brought it home.

JIM HOAGLAND: I think he deserves a lot of credit, but I think it’s also possible to overdo that. It’s clear that the one area where he was given the authority to run it on his own is the Middle East, where he was very dogged, where I think he did have a chance at a significant agreement between Syria and Israel. It didn’t happen primarily because Hafez Al-Assad decided he didn’t want a deal. And Christopher’s fingerprints are all over the Middle East. They’re almost nowhere else.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: I really disagree with that. Power in foreign policy flows from the President. The key point always is the relationship between the secretary of state and the President. Warren Christopher had an extraordinarily close relationship to the President. Warren Christopher is not a man that talks a lot to the public. He knew that his chief responsibility was to advise the President. I don’t think there’s a single part of American foreign policy that Warren Christopher has not been deeply engaged in–maybe not publicly, maybe not giving a lot of speeches, but President Clinton had confidence in Warren Christopher, and I don’t–and still does–and I don’t believe any major foreign policy decision was made in this administration without Warren Christopher being involved. Now he has a kind of a retiring manner, and it was remarkable in a way that he let Dick Holbrooke take the lead, but that’s Warren Christopher; that’s his nature.

JIM LEHRER: Most secretaries–at least it was said on this program–most secretaries of state would never have allowed Dick Holbrooke to do that.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Absolutely not, but Warren Christopher is not challenged by that. He’s a man who’s confident in his own judgment, and he is confident in his relationship with the President. So he was quite prepared to let Dick Holbrooke do that. And he stepped in at the critical points. I think he was a deeply engaged secretary of state.

WILLIAM HYLAND: Yet, we know from Colin Powell’s memoirs that he resigned or wanted to resign two years ago, and that the President offered the job to Colin Powell, if you can believe those memoirs, which I do, which really means–raises a question of whether these last two years his position has been uneasy. And I think what happened today was bizarre for a President–for a senior cabinet officer to insist, I guess, on his resignation being announced and accepted just before going off on a long foreign trip. That’s really a strange, almost baffling occurrence.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the conventional wisdom, Jim Hoagland, on who’s going to replace Warren Christopher? Is there any?

JIM HOAGLAND: The buzz is that George Mitchell seems to have the inside track on that–the former Senator from Maine who also prepped the President for his debates with Bob Dole, apparently.

JIM LEHRER: He played the part of Dole.

JIM HOAGLAND: He played the part of Dole, and apparently he and the President–

JIM LEHRER: Apparently better than Dole, some say.

JIM HOAGLAND: I hadn’t heard that before.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, well–

JIM HOAGLAND: And he’s also–

JIM LEHRER: Dole said that, as a matter of fact.

JIM HOAGLAND: He’s been trying to negotiate a peace settlement in Northern Ireland with mixed success. The other name you hear a lot is Madeleine Albright, the UN–the American ambassador at the United Nations who’s run a very effective campaign for the job and has probably gained a lot of credit the way she’s done it.

JIM LEHRER: What names–do you hear those same names, Congressman?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Well, there’s a lot of speculation, and I think it’s speculation. This is a very private decision that a President makes on a secretary of state–natural enough that names come up, but the choice will be one that the President is comfortable with, and I really don’t know who that is.

JIM LEHRER: Is the job as important in the non-Cold War era as it used to be, Bill Maynes?

WILLIAM MAYNES: Well, I think that the salience of foreign policy has diminished, but it still remains one of the key jobs in the administration. I think this is probably the first administration where the secretary of treasury and the national–the head of the National Economic Policy are as important as the secretary of state or the head of the National Security Council, and that reflects the new agenda that the United States has in front, but still this is one of the two or three top jobs in the administration and will be in any future administration.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you gentlemen, all four, very much.