Profile: The shadow over Clinton's foreign policy: Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State

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LET US begin with the bad part - or, more precisely, the savage words of a young Turk of the Democratic Party's foreign affairs establishment about Warren Christopher, when asked why it is so difficult to come to grips with Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. 'It's simply not possible to bring him to life,' this specialist said, understandably keen to remain anonymous. 'It's a mystery why he has the position. He looks unhappy and he's not very good at the job. What's more, there are gaps in his knowledge that would disqualify a copy editor. What you see is what you get.'

What you see is a smallish man with a pinched face that has been likened to a prune, and which never betrays a trace of emotion. The voice is gravelly and the garb immutable: a white shirt beneath a sober, expensive dark suit with large lapels, the only hint of daring an occasional bright tie. Pass him in the street and you would take him for a very pricey, very wise corporate lawyer; indeed, that is exactly what he was until Clinton last December gave him the most prestigious job in his Cabinet.

Warren Christopher, who in the next few days will be carrying Clinton's decision on Bosnia to Europe, is not the stuff of flashy profiles. Grey, competent, cautious, trustworthy, decent are the adjectives that adorn him. 'An anecdote? I just haven't got one,' says a colleague from the Carter administration, who has been friends with Christopher for more than 20 years. The man's self-effacement and restraint are Washington legends. He abhors harsh confrontation; his wife, Marie, once confided that they had not had a single fight in the 35 years of their marriage.

If red meat is your taste in foreign policy-making, Warren Christopher is not your man. But should your preference run to efficiency, loyalty, patient negotiating skills and a discreetness bordering on invisibility, then he is ideal. In British parlance, he has 'a safe pair of hands'. Fred Dutton, a Washington lobbyist and friend from college days, puts it this way: 'I've known every secretary of state since Dean Rusk, and in terms of intellectual competence, poise and judgement you won't find anyone better than 'Chris'. He'll avoid turf fights. He's a total team player, who never leaves the reservation.' For Jimmy Carter, whom he served as deputy secretary of state, and for whom he negotiated the release of the Teheran hostages, Christopher was quite simply 'the best public servant I ever knew'. And therein lies part of the problem.

The lesser charge against Warren Christopher is that he is the living, outdated embodiment of Carter's failed Seventies liberalism: a believer, even in the face of facts, that sweet reason and moral rectitude can solve every human problem. At root, critics say, he is one of nature's second-in-commands, faithful executor of the orders of others but without the steel for the top job. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, was no admirer, either. Christopher, he once wrote, had a tendency 'to litigate issues endlessly, to shy away from the inevitable ingredient of force in dealing with international realities and to have an excessive faith that all issues can be resolved by compromise'.

HENCE, it might be argued, Washington's failure to act in the complicated Bosnian crisis, which the other day drew a vintage Christopherism: 'I'm not one of those who thinks there's any great disadvantage in extensive and prolonged discussions.' Such blandness drives activists to despair. But Christopher should not yet be dismissed as a soft touch. Bosnia surely arouses that other side of him, the passionate believer in human rights. Bottled up behind that impassive facade, it rarely shows. But peer into Christopher's background, and much becomes clearer.

His forefathers were Norwegian immigrants, and his modesty and self-effacement typify the austere ethos of Scandinavian Lutheranism that took root in America's cold northern plains. He was born 67 years ago into a God- fearing household in the small town of Scranton, North Dakota, where his father was an officer in a small bank. Then in 1937, when the promising young son was only 12, and as depression, drought and dustbowl crushed the local farming economy, the bank failed. His father had a massive stroke, which four years later would kill him.

In the vain hope that he would recover, the impoverished family had moved to a rented apartment in Los Angeles. They were hard times of which, characteristically, Christopher is unwilling to talk even to close friends: 'It gets a little corny.' But to these experiences may be traced his deep-rooted liberalism, his concern for the underdog, and 30 years of involvement with the Democratic Party. In the event, California made him rich. After a brief spell in military service at the end of the war, he attended Stanford University, of whose Law Review he became the first editor. The fast track continued, first into the chambers of Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, and then back to the West Coast and O'Melveny & Myers - arguably the most prestigious law firm in California. In no time, Warren Christopher became a pillar of the Los Angeles establishment.

He headed the commission that studied the Watts riots of 1965, which in turn led him back to Washington as deputy attorney general for the last 18 months of the Johnson administration. His then boss, Ramsey Clark, credits Christopher with nudging the 1968 Civil Rights bill through Congress almost single-handed. Nearly a quarter of a century later, as Bill Clinton was wrapping up the Democratic Party nomination, new riots and a new commission thrust the million-dollar-a-year lawyer back into the headlines. Christopher headed the panel probing the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. Belying his gentle reputation, he sought and ultimately secured the removal of the LAPD's hitherto impregnable chief, Daryl Gates.

California, too, drew him into Clinton's inner orbit. In every campaign since 1964 he has been an influential, behind-the-scenes Democratic organiser and fund-raiser. Impressed by what he saw, Clinton asked Christopher to head his search for a running mate. The mission, which led to the choice of Al Gore, was immaculately accomplished. The only fumble, indeed one of the rare known errors of this man who leaves so few fingerprints, was his suggestion of his former O'Melveny & Myers protegee Zoe Baird (of illegal nanny fame), who became Clinton's ill-fated first nominee for Attorney General. But once he had agreed to stay on in Little Rock after the election to direct the transition team, there was never a doubt that Warren Christopher would get what he later admitted was 'the one job I wanted'. The mystery is what he will do with it.

THREE months into his tenure, he has given no clue of his views on such issues as the Middle East, China, South Africa, Islamic fundamentalism, even Haiti, where Clinton's betrayal of his campaign promises presumably must have disturbed him. But the good trooper Chris raised no waves. Nor is he the ideas man and innovator that this different post-Cold War world surely requires. Look not for a 'Christopher doctrine', beyond the lawyerly habit of treating each new brief as it lands on his desk.

If there is to be a foreign policy powerhouse in this administration, it will not be found at the State Department but at an already overstretched White House. 'I don't think he's really a key player,' complains another critic. 'He sits at meetings, listens and takes notes.' Some staffers have already dubbed him 'Mr Memo'. The President will not object. Like every predecessor, Bill Clinton is succumbing to the fascinations of foreign affairs.

Beyond a doubt, too, he feels comfortable with Christopher. The two have much in common, starting with a profound belief in the virtues of secrecy. Affable and informal he may be, but this president is running one of the tightest White Houses in memory. And Clinton, for all his Kennedyesque, brave-new- world rhetoric, is scarcely less addicted to compromise and caution than his Secretary of State. One suspects, too, he may be as instinctively doveish: both have yet to prove they can be tough in a crisis. And the age difference is no hindrance - there seems to be something avuncular in their relationship.

Christopher's personal charm is indisputable. He has a quiet, self-deprecating sense of humour, and a consideration for subordinates absent during the James Baker years - and all the more appreciated by those who deal with him regularly. But in a cruel world, will wisdom and kindness on their own suffice?

In two ways, Warren Christopher's appointment is a wider sign of the times. This is an age in which the presidential star shines alone. With the disastrous exception of Al Haig, every secretary of state since the flamboyant Henry Kissinger has preferred to hide his light under a bushel. Christopher, visibly uncomfortable in the media glare, is the ultimate man of the shadows. If ever there was a fascinating insider's story to be written, it was the tale of the Teheran hostages. Christopher tried, but gave up: 'I don't like using the vertical pronoun,' he once confessed.

It is also the age of the lawyer. In a government of lawyers - Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves, and no less than 13 of the 18 cabinet members - Warren Christopher is the lawyer's lawyer. Some would argue the trend is inevitable, that only the finest legal minds can administer the modern US society, with its complexities and competing interest groups. Such, beyond question, will be Christopher's approach to the even more complex world beyond America's shores. The risk is not that the US will act hastily and rashly, rather that it will not act at all.