Christopher is first to leave Clinton's team

President pays tribute to US `elder statesman'
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By no stretch of the imagination could he be called a great secretary of state - a Marshall, an Acheson or a Kissinger. In honesty, he will probably not even go down as a good one. But if diligence and self-effacing decency were the sole requirements of his trade, Warren Christopher would have no equal.

Yesterday, Bill Clinton took his leave of his faithful retainer at a brief White House ceremony. "Warren Christopher is truly America's elder statesman," the President said, as the 71-year-old diplomat became the first of at least four Cabinet members to depart the Administration after the President's re-election. He will re- turn to his law practice in Los Angeles.

Deputy Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, and head of Mr Clinton's transition team after the 1992 election, Mr Christopher was the obvious choice for the State Department. But despite his endless travelling and infinitely patient negotiating, he will be remembered more for his crisply cut suits and dashing ties than for diplomatic achievements.

He has devoted huge amounts of time and energy to the Middle East. Yet despite Mr Christopher's constant visits to the region, complete with more than a dozen meetings with President Assad of Syria, and separate peace treaties between Israel and the PLO and Israel and Jordan, the region is arguably more dangerous today than in 1993, and an overall settlement further away than ever.

Richard Holbrooke, not he, was architect of the 1995 Bosnia settlement. Mr Christopher has largely delegated Nato and Russia policy to his deputy, Strobe Talbott, and has virtually neglected China. To his credit, he has presided over a harmonious national security team, unscarred by the feuding between White House and State Department that marked the Nixon and Carter administrations.

Mr Christopher's personal civility and concern for his staff are legendary. But this dour North Dakotan has not shone as a salesman of foreign policy, and his has lacked the clout in Congress to fend off heavy cuts in the department imposed by penny-pinching and isolationist Republicans. Two years ago, he offered to resign, but Mr Clinton insisted he stay on.

Yesterday, George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and peace envoy to Ireland, was the marginal favourite to succeed him, thanks to his experience on Capitol Hill. Madeleine Albright, the present US Ambassador to the UN, is however very much in the frame, as is the outgoing Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and the Republican Richard Lugar, of Indiana. "I want to cast a wide net," Mr Clinton said.

Either of the last two indeed are equally plausible replacements for the Defense Secretary, William Perry, who plans to step down early in the new term. Other departing top officials are expected to include Federico Pena, the Transportation Secretary; Mickey Kantor, Commerce Secretary; Hazel O'Leary, Energy Secretary and Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff. The first replacements could be announced by Mr Clinton as early as today. However, Janet Reno, the often-criticised Attorney General said yesterday she wanted to stay on.

The impending Cabinet reshuffle has assumed such dimensions that Mr Clinton has been forced to postpone his planned holiday in Hawaii next week. Quick appointments are essential, if he is to keep up the momentum of his re- election victory, and not allow attention to refocus on such embarrassments as the recent row over foreign Democratic campaign contributions.