United Nations, N.Y. — Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters is a man who prefers low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But the United States' military strike against Libya this week placed General Walters, the US ambassador to the United Nations, in the spotlight. His weekend visit to Europe, to try to gain allied support, was highly publicized. He has since been frequently called upon to explain Tuesday's attack and its aftermath.
No one was surprised that it was the peripatetic Walters whom President Reagan chose for the mission to Europe. Avuncular, good-natured, an exceptional linguist, and a man who enjoys intrigue, Walters has visited 108 countries, covering 1 million miles as Reagan's chief diplomatic trouble-shooter since 1981.
``High profile?'' He took exception to this description during an interview before leaving for Europe. ``When was the last time you read about me in the press? During the [UN] Security Council debate on the Gulf of Sidra, there were only 12 lines in the papers. The Soviet Ambassador got eight, and I got four. That's the way I like to do business. Out of the public glare.'' But his physical girth and often-booming voice can make this difficult.
Walters says he is intent on making, not just implementing, foreign policy. His choice, as Washington's 18th permanent representative to an organization that has often aroused US ire, was initially met with shudders from the third world. Ambassador Walters, it was said in the carpeted corridors, had most certainly been appointed to deliver the UN its final death blow.
Indeed, eight months after he arrived, the US announced substantial budgetary reductions in its UN contribution and also called for a personnel reduction of the Soviet Union's UN mission by nearly 40 percent.
But most of the retired general's time in New York has been spent grappling with the issue of terrorism, trying to convince this largely third-world body that Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi must be isolated.
How does he think the US should deal with terrorism?
``I'm a participant in the doctrine of constructive ambiguity,'' he says. ``I don't think we should tell them what we're going to do in advance. Let them think. Worry. Wonder. Uncertainty is the most chilling thing of all. . . .''
As a retired officer (he was involved in four wars), Walters has moved with equal deftness through the cocktail circuit of international affairs, serving in Italy, Brazil, Vietnam, and France. He was with Averell Harriman in Paris when the Marshall Plan was born and with Dwight Eisenhower on many a foreign tour. He smuggled Henry Kissinger in and out of Paris during secret talks with China and North Vietnam in the early '70s. Walters was one of the few Nixon appointees to survive Watergate with his reputation intact. And his term as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1972 to 1976 is said to have been successful.
``He's indestructible,'' says one of Walters's aides, ``sincere and loyal. He's entering his fifth decade of government service. . . . Far longer than most.''
At Walters's Senate confirmation hearings last May, one senator described him as ``about the most fascinating guy who has ever appeared before us.''
Why is he fascinating and what is the secret of his durability? ``Damned if I know,'' Walters laughs.
Is Walters, as a recent magazine article suggested, merely a modern-day courtier?
``I am not a courtier. I am not a spectator. This is a policymaking job. I made it quite clear that if it did not carry Cabinet rank, I wasn't interested -- and that's not exactly the pose of a courtier.
``There, on my wall, is a picture of my home in Palm Beach, Florida, and it's there waiting if I'm asked to do something which I don't want to do,'' Walters says.
How does he describe himself politically?
But to critics at the UN, Walters is an unrepentant cold warrior -- swashbuckling, Rambo-esque, intent upon currying favor for right-wing dictatorships. ``One thing you must give him credit for, however,'' says a UN official who doesn't share his political views, ``is that at least he's not an offensive, belligerent right-winger. . . .''
Walters bristles when discussing the UN's budget crisis -- the most serious in its 40-year history.
``How can we discuss fiscal and budgetary restraint,'' he thunders, ``and then find that an official UN mission is visiting Bulgaria to explore the role of nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]? There are no NGOs in Bulgaria. Even the lady who hands out towels in the toilet is a government employee.''
``In 1985, our arrears [to the UN budget] were $30 million, out of a total of $200 million in arrears,'' he says. ``The Soviets owe $168 million, yet there's been little responsibility assigned to them. Everyone regards us as the chief culprit. . . .''
Has he made new friends for the US since his arrival?
``In the Security Council debate on the Gulf of Sidra, 21 countries spoke against us. Only three spoke for us. When it came to the crunch, however, they were unable to pass a resolution against the United States. These are the silent victories one does not trumpet. . . .''
He has had his share of diplomatic failures, Walters concedes, citing Lebanon and Sri Lanka. But there have also been successes, he says: gaining the release of political prisoners on three continents.
Is the US, with its criticism of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's regime last month, shifting its policy on right-wing, military regimes?
``Yes,'' there's been some shift, ``but I wouldn't take it out of its framework,'' Walters says. ``Cuba and Chile both have populations of 10 million. Two million have fled from Cuba, which is much harder to do. Only 15-25,000 have fled Chile, where they can simply walk across the border into Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.
``And don't denigrate right-wing dictatorships: They almost always lead to democracy -- Portugal, Spain, Greece, Argentina, Brazil. . . . But with communist dictatorships, they've never become representative in this century. With a communist dictatorship, there's little in the past to offer future hope.''
``The Reagan administration is as committed to human rights as much as anyone else,'' he says. ``In my own personal trouble-shooting, I've told many a right-wing dictatorship to move toward democracy. But my own feeling is that we don't press left-wing dictatorships in the same way. The accusation that we favor right-wing dictatorships is absolutely false. We do business with Romania and Hungary, and nobody accuses us of propping them up. . . .''