TO fill his top national-security positions President-elect Clinton, an avowed agent of change, has picked classic political establishment insiders.
Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher, set to be tapped for secretary of state yesterday, served not only Jimmy Carter but Lyndon Johnson as well. Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, expected to be named secretary of defense, worked as a Pentagon analyst during the Vietnam War and since then has spent his legislative life immersed in such arcana as MX-missile basing-mode studies.
Anthony Lake, who was to be named national security adviser, and Madeleine Albright, who will be US ambassador to the United Nations, are veterans of the Carter administration. So is James Woolsey, who was to be tapped for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Given the sometimes insular nature of America's foreign policy and security circles, this reliance on the usual suspects was perhaps inevitable. The demands of the chaotic post-cold-war era call for security leaders with hands-on experience, and since the Democrats have been out of power for 12 years, they do not have too many people like that around.
One advantage the Clinton team will have is that Democrats are now more unified on foreign policy. For years the party was split into two wings - a more liberal one, as exemplified by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and a hawkish one led by ex-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
These wings were distinguished by their different attitudes toward dealing with the Soviets, arms control, and other war-peace matters.
"None of that's relevant anymore," notes Robert Hunter, a Center for Strategic and International Studies expert and former National Security Council official.
This is one reason the nasty intramural foreign policy squabbles of the Nixon, Carter, and early Reagan years may not surface during the Clinton administration. The president-elect is also known to value harmony among his advisers, unlike past chief executives who allowed "creative tension" to flourish. Hostage-release negotiator
For Mr. Christopher, a polished professional capable of looking well-pressed even after long sessions that leave other participants feeling rumpled, the return to the State Department as chief is fraught with irony. His last job in government was deputy secretary of state. In that capacity he served as chief negotiator for the release of the Iranian hostages - a crisis that contributed to the election victories of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
According to one account, the incoming Reagan administration got rid of Christopher and fellow political appointees so fast that his salary stopped while he was still in Algiers, celebrating the release of the hostages after almost two weeks of last-minute talks. "Their fares home were paid only after it was pointed out how disgracefully there were being treated," writes analyst Barry Rubin in his book, "Secrets of State."
Having helped handle one of the most acute problems to face a United States foreign policy team in recent decades, Christopher will serve the incoming Clinton administration as a crisis manager capable of dealing with whatever erupts in the world on a day-to-day basis.
Christopher has never been known as a grand strategist in the mold of a Kissinger, or even a Brzezinski. But Clinton has given every indication that he thinks he can set the overall thrust of his administration's foreign policy himself, despite his intention to focus on domestic economics. Keep-ahead strategy
Clinton has indicated he understands that if he does not focus on foreign policy problems, and "get ahead of them," trouble can build up. "Then the problems will swarm on us," he said earlier this month.
Representative Aspin, on the other hand, is not primarily a manager of any kind. His strengths are intellectual - he is a "policy wonk," much as Clinton is, given to excited discussions of three-point option papers.
Considering that the Department of Defense, with its $260 billion-plus budget, is in essence one of America's largest and most complicated institutions, Aspin's lack of administrative experience could be a problem. But with the right staff choices it does not have to be, points out one defense industry source who has worked closely with Aspin in the past.
That is why there are deputy secretaries,this source says.
Aspin has thought long and hard about the right way to shape US forces in a declining budget environment.
Aspin won his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee in the first place by emphasizing his moderation to the Democratic House Caucus, and he has been known to take ideologically unpredictable positions.
He supported the Gulf war, and on use of US military force has sometimes sounded more hawkish than Clinton.