'Mr Memo' conceals inner resolve: Critics have damned Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, with faint praise but his record is impressive, writes David Usborne in Washington

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IT IS unlikely that any of the Nato foreign ministers after their first meeting with America's new Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in Brussels today will leave disliking or distrusting the man. But then they may not feel they have quite got the full measure of him either.

With his buttoned-down demeanour and intense sense of discretion, there is nothing up-front about Mr Christopher. As someone who recently abandoned writing a political memoir because he did not enjoy 'using the vertical pronoun', he does not readily give clues about his character or inner thoughts.

It is this peculiar absence of flamboyance - which has marked his style both as a public servant and as one of Los Angeles' most powerful lawyers - that has led some to question the wisdom of his appointment. The world is more unstable and unpredictable than ever today, they argue, and it needs a Secretary of State with more obvious dynamism and personal charisma.

Mostly, his critics offer faint praise for his intense sense of discipline and organisation - in hostile Washington circles he is dismissively referred to as 'Mr Memo' - without having the necessary vision to steer his department and the country on a new world course. 'Competence without content' was how one commentator recently put it.

His approach is deliberate and has served him through a long, distinguished career. As acting secretary of state in the last days of the Carter administration he negotiated the release of 52 US hostages in Tehran, a feat that made him a national hero. More recently, the steel beneath the neat suits was revealed when, after last year's riots, he led the inquiry into the Los Angeles Police Department that led to the dismissal of the chief of police, Daryl Gates.

If there is inner toughness, his philosophy will be to avert confrontation in favour of reconciliation. He noted recently: 'Either instinctively or consciously, it always seems to me that if you are courteous and prudent you can advance causes and ideas that would be unacceptable for others.'

His preference for prudence is evident in the administration's approach to Bosnia, the main topic of discussion in Brussels today. Mr Clinton seemed to be drifting to intervention; it was Mr Christopher who led the case for caution.

His talents will be stretched in trying to restart Middle East talks, contain Russia's economic crisis, end the Bosnia conflict and disentangle the US from Somalia. His approach promises to be determined but deliberate; he may not dazzle colleagues but will not do anything to sow alarm.