Diplomat Warren Christopher Tribute

Tavis pays tribute to Presidential Medall of Freedom recipient and former U.S. Secretary of State.

Diplomat and lawyer Warren Christopher spent more than five decades in public service. He served under three presidents, including as secretary of state in the Clinton White House, and earned the Medal of Freedom for his role in negotiating the release of 52 American hostages in Iran. In his adopted city of Los Angeles, he had leading roles on commissions formed in the aftermath of the Watts riots and the Rodney King case. Christopher authored four books, co-chaired the Pacific Council on International Policy and was chairman of O'Melveny & Myers law firm.


Tavis: Warren Christopher’s long career of public service dated back to his time in the Navy during World War II. He would go on to serve in the White House under Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter before becoming Bill Clinton’s secretary of State. He also helped reform the L.A. police department in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and represented Al Gore in the Supreme Court case that decided the 2000 presidential election.
When Warren Christopher last joined us on this program back in 2006 there was much debate at the time about the lack of U.S. diplomacy around the world and how that impacted U.S. foreign policy. At the time, the U.S. was mired in two wars in the Middle East, and as fate would have it, on the weekend of his passing the U.S. military is now engaged in a third Muslim country.
Before we wade into the subject of diplomacy, I began our conversation by noting one of his well-worn trademarks – a fine pinstripe suit.
[Begin video clip]
Warren Christopher: Thank you, Tavis. It’s nice to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I went out and stepped up my game, got me a nice pinstriped suit, because I knew you were going to be on, and I figured (laugh) – I said before he walked out that this is, without question, the most dapper secretary of State we have ever had. I don’t care what George Schultz says. (Laugh) So it’s nice to have you on.
Christopher: Thank you.
Tavis: All right. Seriously, though, I wanted to have you on because, as I was saying to you before we came on the air, you have such a wealth of information, such a wealth of knowledge to share with the U.S., indeed the world, about diplomacy. And I wanted to have you on because that seems to be a word that has gotten lost or forgotten in Washington these days.
I thought that if you and I could sit just for a few minutes and talk about diplomacy, as it were, we might add something to the conversation. So that said, thank you for accepting my invitation.
Christopher: Good, good.
Tavis: Let me start with whether or not you think I’m right about that, that somewhere along the way we have lost sight of what it means to engage in diplomacy.
Christopher: Yes, I think over the last several years our sense of superiority, maybe even arrogance, has caused us to think that we didn’t need to engage with countries who are our adversaries. I think that’s a serious mistake. It’s one of the things that the Iraq study commission pointed out very effectively. We need to talk to countries like Iran and Syria.
If we don’t, Tavis, we tend to isolate ourselves. We think we’re isolating them, but we tend to isolate ourselves. Just look at Syria and Iran. They’re on either side of Iraq, so we’re not talking to Iraq’s neighbors, but here we are in a struggle in Iraq, a very, very difficult struggle, and we’re not talking to their neighbors.
Tavis: Yet with all of the persons, distinguished persons on the Iraq study group, and I’m told they talked to you at one point in their preparation for the report.
Christopher: Right.
Tavis: But you think of all the distinguished members on that commission, Mr. Secretary, and the first thing that President Bush essentially said was, :”I am not talking to Iran and Syria.”
Christopher: Well, I hope he’ll change his mind about that. Tavis, one thing about presidents is they can turn on a dime. They can say one thing today and tomorrow change their mind. So I hope he’ll find some way to talk to both Iran and Syria, because it’s very important to the ultimate solution of this problem.
Tavis: Let me ask you to get inside Mr. Bush’s head for just a second, which might not be the easiest thing for you to do. But what’s the value in trying to advance the cause of peace, or whatever the object might be? What would be the advantage in icing someone, in not talking to them?
Christopher: Well, I think that one of the things that President Bush feels is that we won’t talk to them unless they make a concession on the major issue. Now that seems to me to go against human nature, but that’s what he thinks. He’s portrayed that all around the world. For example, he has declined to talk face to face, one on one, with the North Koreans until they agree that they’ll not have a nuclear program.
That’s just not likely to happen. You have to start the conversation, get the other person involved or the other country involved, and then you find your way to a conclusion. But I think misguidedly, this administration thinks that the power of the United States is such that we don’t need to have these conversations.
Tavis: That raises a very scary – I’m pausing here not because I’m lost but because I’m trying to figure how to phrase this delicately. I was in a conversation the other day with someone on this show, in fact, and we talked about this issue of public diplomacy, and I defined public diplomacy as, where we are concerned, as Americans having to sell or explain America to the rest of the world in a way that they get and understand.
If we take that as a definition, one could argue, given your point now, that Mr. Bush isn’t cut out for public diplomacy. That at a point where we need to be engaged in the world right about now, given the mess that we’re in, this isn’t the guy to put out front as our diplomat in chief.
Christopher: Well, I don’t want to criticize the president, but I think there’s a matter of attitude about this that’s very important and I think he needs to convey the attitude to his administration that we need to be talking to these other countries. Otherwise, we’re not going to get where we need to get. Tavis, it’s important to talk to them about what the United States’ interests are.
But the real way to engage them is to talk to them about what their interests are. Not what their positions are – sometimes their positions are totally unacceptable to us. But if you can discover what their real interests are, what will be good for them, then you can get closer to home.
Tavis: What would we, then, hypothetically, be saying to a country like Iran or Syria, were the president to, to your point, turn on a dime, change his mind tomorrow – don’t hold your breath – and say he’s going to talk to them?
Christopher: I think you’d begin by saying that it’s their interest to avoid chaos, avoid a meltdown in Iraq, and why is that – because civil wars tend to spread to neighboring countries. That’s what history shows. Also, there are enormous refugee flows that come from civil wars. Already it’s estimated that a million people have left Iraq for Jordan, and a million people have gone to Syria.
Now you can use that term, but you have to visualize it. In a relatively small country like both of those are, that amount of refugee flow is just an enormous burden. So there’s so many things that you can talk to those two countries about their interests, why it’s in their interest to have a national reconciliation within Iraq, and why it’s in their interest not to have this conflict spill over and spread into their borders.
Tavis: Is it possible to get to a point where your credibility in the world community or with a particular person, the situation gets so ugly, so nasty, so volatile, that you move beyond the point of diplomacy being able to work?
Christopher: Yeah, I suppose that’s possible. We’re not there yet with either of those countries. I’ve dealt a lot with Syria and I’ve dealt a lot with Iran, at a distance, and let me tell you some of the things I think we ought to do with a country like Syria.
Tavis: Please.
Christopher: Diplomacy is all about preparation, preparation, preparation, just like real estate’s about location, location, location. So you’d start, I think, very carefully with Syria. I would send somebody to talk to their foreign minister. Unofficially, around the edges. Walid al-Moualem is somebody that many of us have worked with. Dennis Ross, for example, is somebody who’s worked very extensively with him.
I’d also send somebody to talk to their ambassador to the United States, unofficially and quietly. I would see if there might be some military-to-military contacts. I would see also if there might be some intelligence-to-intelligence contacts. Sometimes you find there are contacts like that that just surprise you.
So I’d get prepared for this by having those around the edges of conversation, rather than trying to say to the President Ahmadinejad, “I want to talk to you,” or to the president of Syria, Assad, I would try to work around it to try to find out what would be necessary to start this conversation on a positive basis.
Tavis: One of your former bosses was on this program last night, President Jimmy Carter, talking about his new book about Israel – as you know, very controversial, “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid,” the name of the book. So we talked a little bit about this last night, but it makes me come back to this now, Mr. Secretary, because increasingly, we live in a world, it seems, where even though we are in love with this thing called democracy, which we want to export around the globe, there are people who are being democratically elected who we have issue talking to, engaging in diplomacy with.
People like Hamas, people like Hezbollah, who are being democratically elected. How do we say on the one hand we love democracy, they get democratically elected, but we don’t want to talk to them?
Christopher: One thing I would say about that, Tavis, is that democracy is more than just having election. Quite often we’ve tried to impose our democratic ideals in a country that’s not really ready for it. They don’t have the kind of economy that’s necessary. They don’t have the other things, like a free press. They don’t have a court system.
So if you try to define democracy as just having an election, then you’ve probably made a mistake. You’re trying to go faster than you should. But I still think that we ought to find ways to talk to almost everybody around the world. There are very few people that we should not be able to engage in conversation with, especially if they’re a state.
I might make an exception to non-state actors, but if they’re a state, I think we ought to find a way to talk with them. If they’re a member of the United Nations, for example. There’s another way of preparation. All these countries have ambassadors of the United Nations. I think a careful approach to those United Nations ambassadors would be a good way also to begin these dialogues.
Tavis: How do you do that, though, if you don’t have much regard for the United Nations as an institution, even? (Laugh)
Christopher: That’s a whole other subject. (Laughter) That’s another lunch, as they say in Washington.
Tavis: In the 30 seconds I have in this lunch, let me ask you right quick – I was fascinated by this book. There’s a little book, a little tiny book, but a powerful book called “Random Harvest” that you put out that includes some of your speeches and some of your beliefs about how to be effective at diplomacy. Tell me a little bit about this text, because I didn’t know it existed, but I’m in love with it now.
Christopher: Well, you’re nice to say that. I just made a few speeches after I left being secretary of State and written some things, and I wanted to collect it in a place that it didn’t just all disappear. That’s what the little book is all about.
It’s quite an eclectic selection, as you probably can see. Doesn’t have any major theme, you’re not going to find how to solve American foreign policy in there, but I guess I wrote it for my children, so they could see what I was thinking about at this part of my life.
Tavis: Yeah, well, I’ll consider myself one of your children, then, because I’ve been reading with great interest and I’m glad you put this forth. You do this very seldom and I don’t know when the last time I saw Warren Christopher sitting down for a conversation on television or radio, but I am honored to have you come on this program.
Christopher: Enjoyed being with you. Thanks so much, Tavis. Good to see you.
Tavis: Glad to have you here, Mr. Christopher.
[End video clip]
Tavis: Of Warren Christopher’s passing, former President Bill Clinton said this: Warren Christopher had the lowest ratio of ego to accomplishment of any public servant I have ever worked with.”
A proud son of Southern California, Warren Christopher died here in Los Angeles on Friday at the age of 85.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm