A man who knows the world's secrets - and keeps them

Warren Christopher did not keep diaries of his days in public office. To write his memoirs, the 63rd secretary of State relied on newspaper accounts of his activities. He must have reread some highly critical reports on his performance:

* When he chased Middle East peace on dozens of trips to the region and neglected other trouble spots, the press demanded better judgment.

* When he couldn't convince European allies that air strikes and lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia were good ideas, the press declared him incompetent.

* When the Chinese ridiculed his 1994 offer to extend most-favored-nation (MFN) trade privileges in return for improving human rights, the press called for his resignation.

Christopher, a man known for his discretion and propriety, apparently has no plans to answer his critics. He doesn't use his memoirs to explain his thinking or second-guess his bosses and colleagues. He avoids the temptation to justify or criticize by revealing little about the inside dynamics of policymaking in any of the administrations he served. The result is merely a detailed narrative of events in his public life.

Fortunately, he is a respectable storyteller. He describes a public official's duties with proper gravity, leavened by occasional attempts at wit.

As Lyndon Johnson's deputy attorney general and later as Jimmy Carter's deputy secretary of State, Christopher took part in what must have been wrenching policy decisions: He handled the use of federal troops to end race riots during the 1960s and considered how best to get American hostages out of Iran in 1980-81.

Yet in describing these challenges - and indeed, in describing tricky decisions he faced throughout his career - he offers only play-by-play accounts. He doesn't say much on the messy business of how difficult policies get made.

Christopher describes events such as the 1995 Dayton peace conference, the 1993 signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, and diplomatic trips to China, Russia and Vietnam. As secretary of State, he had access to some of the most unobtainable anecdotes in the world: Milosevic didn't like his accommodations during the Bosnia peace negotiations; when upset, Chinese President Jiang Zemin harassed diplomats with difficult riddles; and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin liked cheese and tomatoes for dinner.

But if the Clinton administration bungled a policy, Christopher chooses to ignore it or pretend he didn't know much about it. He does not mention Somalia or Haiti. On Bosnia, he covers the months of embarrassing diplomatic vacillation that preceded the Dayton Accords in a one-paragraph acknowledgement that the US could have done better. He does not explain the logic behind the administration's decisions on Bosnia. Regarding China, he writes as if he knew nothing about the awkward decision to delink MFN status from China's human rights record in 1994. He says only that he returned from Beijing to find that it was as if the policy linking MFN to human rights had died in his absence.

Perhaps Christopher did not intend to write policy-intensive memoirs. If so, he shouldn't have made half-hearted attempts to analyze select, perhaps less controversial, policies. The few personal opinions on policy he shares invariably accord with administration views. He says he favored NATO expansion, but doesn't go into specifics. On this topic he tantalizes the reader with the briefest glimpse into official debate about how fast the alliance should expand. He also supported engagement with China, but all he'll say about that policy is that isolating China will turn it into an enemy of the United States.

Christopher's book is an interesting look at what it's like to hold high office. But his memoirs are not the place to learn about the tough internal fights that make good policy. For that, the book might be, as the author described Milosevic's reaction to his personality, "too mild for [many] tastes."

Caroline Benner is the managing editor of the Foreign Service Journal.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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