Warren Christopher, former secretary of state, passed away on Friday. History will decide his legacy, but future historians seeking an accurate portrayal of his role in the Carter and Clinton administrations would do well to ignore the crop of obituaries that are littered with errors of omission and commission. The Wall Street Journal’s effort is symptomatic. Take this, for example:
In his Senate confirmation hearings for the secretary of state in 1993, not long after the Soviet Union had crumbled leaving the U.S. the sole standing superpower, Mr. Christopher called for “an entirely new foreign policy for a world that’s fundamentally changed.”
But rather than pursuing a lofty and ambitious program, his four years at Foggy Bottom were consumed confronting a series of regional issues that seemed to foreshadow America’s unsettled years to come. Among these was nation building in Haiti; humanitarian intervention followed by chaos in Somalia; and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, where a much-delayed effort culminated with the Dayton peace accords.
That “much-delayed”effort refers to a substantial military operation that halted a bloodbath. Whatever part Christopher played paled in comparison to that of the U.S. military and its commander in chief, former president Bill Clinton.
Then there is this even more egregious exaggeration of Christopher’s role in key events:
But it was the hostage negotiations that were Mr. Christopher’s most dramatic triumph.
Mr. Vance resigned in the wake of a failed rescue attempt, and Mr. Christopher was at first bitterly disappointed to be passed over for secretary of state. But instead he flew to Algiers, where he spent months negotiating with tactics that included threatening to storm out, and warning the captors that the incoming president, Ronald Reagan, might prove a less reliable negotiator.
The hostages were finally freed at the moment of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and Mr. Christopher met them as they headed home from Algiers. “There were very few people with dry eyes, and I was not one of them,” he told a crowd of reporters the next day, as he left the State Department to make way for a new crop of Reagan appointees.
No, it wasn’t Christopher’s months of fruitless negotiations, but the appearance of a president whom the Iranians feared, unlike Christopher’s then-boss, President Jimmy Carter. To be candid, it was not Christopher’s “triumph,” but rather, the quintessential contrast between a feckless president (Carter) and a resolute one (even the prospect of one) that should be remembered.
Obituaries are the first draft of post mortem biographies. And in this case, the drafts should be ignored.
While it is fashionable to portray diplomats as “triumphant,” more often than not they ride on the coattails or on the expectation of “hard power.” The self-appointed media and academic elite are dependably enamored of “diplomacy,” as if it exists as a free-floating exercise that succeeds when just the right message is spoken in just the right tone. That may be true with allies, but it rarely is with hardened foes. Christopher’s career, if seen in proper perspective, teaches us that.