AS the Clinton administration nears the two-year point, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has become one of the most widely criticized chiefs of Foggy Bottom in decades. It is an ironic twist for a famously modest, reticent man. The very qualities that have helped him in the past in a long legal and diplomatic career are now said by his critics to be contributing to Mr. Clinton's foreign-policy problems.
Sniping at the leadership of the Department of State is a long-established Washington practice. James Baker III, President Bush's chief diplomat, was said to rely too much on an insular inner circle for support. During the Reagan era, Alexander Haig was held by many to be mercurial; George Schultz was often faulted for a dull style.
Mr. Christopher may have been on the edge of losing his job several times, according to many observers in Washington, but now he is thought secure, at least through the midterm elections in November. But he is still widely perceived to be a liability, at least in terms of US domestic politics.
The White House has sent presidential counselor and communications expert David Gergen to State to help Christopher put a better face on the administration's foreign policy.
``It never helps any administration to have a cabinet official become a lightening rod,'' says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
Whether Christopher is the real cause of Clinton's foreign policy problems is an open question. Even the secretary of state's detractors acknowledge that managing US foreign policy has never been more difficult.
``The administration is grappling with foreign problems that are unprecedented in complexity - problems for which there are no simple answers,'' a former US diplomat notes.
During the cold war, policy makers had the easier task of dealing mostly with conflicts between states. They could wield the traditional tools of diplomacy and negotiate with strong national leaders who could make rational calculations of national interest.
Virtually all the conflicts that have raged since the end of the cold war, however, have been internal conflicts - Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti - that have weakened national leaders and left the US with cruel policy choices.
``All over the world we're dealing with the equivalent of the Los Angeles riots,'' Mr. Maynes says. ``Is anyone in charge of the riots that you can reason with, threaten, or bribe? Even if there is, would he have the power to stop the riots? If you don't have a chain of command, you have two choices: Let the riots burn out or send in troops to stop them. These are daunting choices.''
Another problem beyond Christopher's control is the widening gap between US rhetoric and what the US can actually afford to do on the world stage. Policymakers have far less money than they would like to help reconstruct the former Soviet republics, contribute to developing countries, and sustain peacekeeping operations around the world.
``I don't think it's the system's fault,'' rejoins one former high-level State Department official, who says Christopher and Clinton's other top foreign-policy aides have blundered into drift and confusion. ``Foreign policy has two parts - knowing what you want to do, and knowing how to get it done. You can fault them on both parts.'' In Bosnia, for example, this critic says, the Clinton administration has struggled with such basic questions as whether to accept partition of the country. Once such policies are made, says the former official, State has faltered in implementing them by failing to bridge the divide between the department's political echelon and its career foreign service professionals.
Christopher's defenders point to his accomplishments, including a sensitive hand in dealing with the former Soviet republics and the administration's hard and successful work on the unglamorous issues of economic foreign policy, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT).
ONE senior State Department official insists that Christopher is ``well respected'' by the department rank and file who, in a recent meeting, gave the secretary an unusually warm standing ovation.
Perhaps Christopher's biggest liability has been an inability to define what US foreign policy should be in the post-cold-war era. With Clinton himself focused on domestic policy and his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, committed to a low-profile role, the administration has often been reactive, responding to events and criticism.
``When all is said and done, [Christopher] doesn't have panache as a communicator, and no one else in the administration has filled that role,'' notes foreign-policy expert Frederick Holborn of Johns Hopkins University.
``Christopher has a lot of strong qualities,'' Maynes concludes. ``The real question is whether he has all the qualities that the Clinton administration needs at this time.''