Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who negotiated settlement to Iran hostage crisis, dies at 85

By Bart Barnes Special to the Washington Post
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, March 21, 2011; 6:05 PM

Warren M. Christopher, who helped negotiate a settlement to the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 and who confronted the ethnic violence in the Balkans and Rwanda while serving as secretary of state during President Bill Clinton's first term, died March 18 at his home in Los Angeles of complications from kidney and bladder cancer. He was 85.

When Mr. Christopher became the 63rd U.S. secretary of state in 1993, he was already known to the public as an effective, if circumspect, negotiator who played a crucial role in brokering the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran on the day Jimmy Carter yielded the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Earlier he had been the Carter administration's point man in persuading the Senate to ratify the Panama Canal treaties, which eventually ceded U.S. control of the canal to Panama. He gained the support of crucial senators as the architect of a "reservation" giving the United States the right to protect the canal and then managed to persuade the Panamanians to accept the provision.

When he was named Clinton's secretary of state, Mr. Christopher was considered the veteran hand who would complement the former Arkansas governor's limited foreign policy experience.

Mr. Christopher's primary responsibility was to ensure that crises in foreign policy did not undermine or interfere with the president's domestic agenda. It was the first time in more than a half-century, Clinton would later say, that the United States was "without a single, overriding threat to our security."

As a diplomat, Mr. Christopher projected an image of discretion and unflappability. People magazine included him in a feature on the best-dressed men in America. Dressing well, he said, "is a mark of the respect you have for others." His language was reasoned but often noncommittal. His stock answer to questions about his personal success was "I've been very lucky."

Writers and commentators characterized him as dour, attentive to detail, patient, steady and poised, but rarely, if ever, charismatic. Clinton once joked that Mr. Christopher was "the only man ever to eat presidential M&Ms with a knife and fork." No one was surprised when, on an official stopover in Ireland, he ordered Irish coffee, decaffeinated and without alcohol.

In a normally high-profile office, Mr. Christopher shunned publicity, and he disliked being in the spotlight. It was on his watch as secretary that peace accords were reached in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, ending a three-year war and ethnic slaughter in Bosnia, but much of the news media attention was focused on Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, who had handled the nitty-gritty of the negotiating. Mr. Christopher later described the agreement as "one of the greatest achievements in American diplomatic history."

Almost four years after stepping down as secretary of state, Mr. Christopher, a senior adviser to Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, returned to the public arena as chief of the team that litigated the results of the Florida recount.

But the lion's share of public attention went to lawyer David Boies, who did most of the courtroom work. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Republican George W. Bush, whose legal team was spearheaded by another former secretary of state, James A. Baker III.

At State, a tumultuous start

As secretary of state, Mr. Christopher told U.S. News & World Report that his "first priority" was to "attack problems before they reach the crisis level" and to keep the United States from expending lives and fortune in international disputes.

"I'd much rather be known as somebody who was a preventer of crises than as a crisis manager," he said.

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