A Charmed Life

Posted: November 25, 1996

Was ever a secretary of state so kindly treated as Warren Christopher? Compared to the savaging most of his predecessors endured, Christopher has led a charmed life. There were, it's true, jokes from time to time that he was dead and that his formal duties were being carried out by a sort of spectral oblong blur, but in his final days, the fiercest reproofs Christopher has to endure are usually to the effect that on his watch, American foreign policy became minimalist both in concept and execution.

In fact, U.S. diplomacy these last four years has been malignantly active, and Christopher bears grave responsibility, but somehow - perhaps it's his air of being a well-bred undertaker - when the accounts are tallied, Christopher's name is invariably forgotten.

In Christopher's years as secretary of state, certainly the most shameful episode concerned the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Rhetorically, the Clinton administration blared its outrage, and the President launched an urgent plea for a cease-fire.

Substantively, the call for a cease-fire meant that the United States would not endorse urgent intervention to stop the killing, and indeed Christopher's own State Department dickered endlessly over conditions attached to the dispatch of U.N. troops, even though it involved no U.S. soldiers and only a modest amount of U.S. taxpayers' money.

Far worse was the refusal to countenance the use of the word genocide to describe the systematic slaughter of Tutsis. Christopher issued orders that no U.S. official should use this word. The reason was simple enough. To admit that genocide was underway in Rwanda would have placed a strong obligation on the United States to comply with the provisions of the Geneva Convention and punish those responsible.

- Alexander Cockburn

Syndicated columnist

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