WASHINGTON -- It wasn't Bosnia or China that beamed a late-summer spotlight on Warren Christopher. It was Colin Powell's revelation that he had been offered the secretary of state's job late last year.
But for that, Americans outside the capital might have wondered whether Warren Christopher was still secretary of state. Working the phones while vacationing, he was little seen publicly as the United States averted an angry confrontation with China and mounted a military and diplomatic effort to end the nightmare in the Balkans.
Mr. Christopher could never be accused of overreaching.
Unlike such publicity guzzlers as Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr. -- to mention two predecessors -- Mr. Christopher willingly yields the limelight and big chunks of responsibility to others and contents himself with being one voice among a half-dozen in setting U.S. foreign policy.
In last week's major achievement, getting the Bosnian Serbs to lift the siege of Sarajevo, practically all the credit and the limelight went to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, culminating Friday in an ABC "Nightline" show in which the program's reporters were with Mr. Holbrooke every moment of the way through his arduous negotiations in several capitals.
Secretary Christopher had only a few seconds, and then to endorse Mr. Holbrooke's performance.
"As you know, my style tends to be a modest one," Mr. Christopher said in an interview last week.
But in a capital where star quality often equals clout, Mr. Christopher's resolute lack of showmanship continues to spark questions about his effectiveness and influence.
Under a president repeatedly faulted for erratic or reactive handling of world affairs, his low profile feeds the impression of a foreign policy operation without a central figure or a strategic core.
It was Mr. Christopher's luck that just when things were starting to go right for Mr. Clinton's foreign policy team, others were seen doing the heavy lifting.
Undersecretary Peter Tarnoff advanced relations with China. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake lined up Europeans behind a new American policy toward Bosnia. Mr. Holbrooke followed up with the high-profile arm-twisting that produced two significant breakthroughs toward a settlement. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was sent to Moscow to mollify the Russians over the bombing of Bosnian Serb targets.
For his part, Mr. Christopher faced indignities. First came former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Powell's disclosure. Mr. Powell wrote in his autobiography that President Clinton told him last December that Mr. Christopher wanted to quit and asked him to take the job.
Recounting how he declined the offer, Mr. Powell added this barb: "Left unspoken were my reservations about the amorphous way the administration handled foreign policy, a style with which I was already familiar. I did not see how I could fit back into this operation without changes so radical that the president would probably have difficulty making them."
While Mr. Christopher suffered through this assault, a Senate appropriations panel hacked away at the State Department budget to the point where fully one-fourth of America's embassies and consulates abroad would have to be shut down, and U.S. contributions to international organizations slashed.
Mr. Christopher is far more active than is readily apparent. A slim 69-year-old who offsets his wrinkled visage with well-cut suits and carefully chosen ties and pocket scarves, he is often at work by 7 a.m. after a two-mile jog with his bodyguards and is in daily contact with the president either in meetings, by phone or by written memo.
Through the latest, summer-long turn in Bosnia, where NATO bombs, American diplomacy and Serbian military setbacks have yielded new promise, Mr. Christopher has weighed in with advice, even from abroad.
At a London conference in July, he enlisted France and Britain for the first time in promising "substantial and decisive" military retaliation against Bosnian Serbs if they threatened the civilian population of Gorazde.
Wednesday night, after Mr. Holbrooke finished his 11-hour negotiations with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on a withdrawal of Serbian heavy weapons from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, Mr. Christopher was on the phone with colleagues from 9 until midnight and again starting at 5 a.m. Thursday.
Later, he was on the Hill trying to recoup his department's budget losses, which he fears would make the United States AWOL in many world hot spots, such as Burundi.
His step-back approach is not just one of style, he says, but the only way to manage an array of complicated world affairs and prevent the United States from being caught off-guard by an unexpected crisis.
"I like to have a broad span of control, to make as sure as I can that the secretary of state does not neglect important areas," he says.
Trusted subordinates -- Dennis Ross for the Middle East, Robert Gallucci for North Korea, Strobe Talbott for Russia -- report to him regularly, sometimes daily.
"If I devoted all my time to one issue, I would risk having one of those fall by the wayside," says Mr. Christopher.
A top Clinton aide says the president has "enormous confidence" that Mr. Christopher can prevent disaster, and also values the secretary's reading of fellow world leaders.
The aide notes that Mr. Christopher was correct in predicting, after his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Brunei in mid-summer, that the Chinese government would release American human-rights activist Harry Wu.
But tactical advice and managing aren't the same as leading, and officials offer only a few examples of Mr. Christopher prevailing over strong opposition from colleagues and putting his stamp on policy. This is about as forceful as he gets:
* Outmaneuvering White House political advisers, he persuaded Clinton to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam in time for Mr. Christopher to open a U.S. Embassy in Hanoi on his Asia trip in July.
* Against opposition from the Pentagon and Treasury, he argued successfully for a total trade embargo against Iran to punish its rogue regime for trying to develop nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism.
On most major foreign issues, other officials take pains to say he's "engaged" -- seldom is he in charge. The State Department, which has historically forged policy, is just one player among many. It was President Clinton himself, early this summer, who saw the dangers looming in Bosnia and demanded a new approach.
Mr. Christopher avoids table-pounding in dealing with foreign leaders and members of Congress. With the former, he says, he prefers to develop a relationship of trust. So far, the results are clearly mixed.
Relations with both China and Russia, America's largest potential adversaries, remain rocky.
While Israelis and Palestinians move haltingly toward a final agreement with U.S. help, a key priority of cementing a deal between Israel and Syria remains stalled.
In a clear slap at Mr. Christopher, Syria's president, Hafez el Assad, failed to meet a commitment to resume negotiations at the end of July.
"I've pressed them as hard as I think the situation warrants," Mr. Christopher says of Syrians and Israelis. "That story's not over yet."
His effort to forge bipartisan ties on Capitol Hill likewise has failed to derail legislative inroads on key foreign policy issues, such as Bosnia and Russia, or to prevent a major assault on the foreign affairs budget.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who chairs a foreign aid subcommittee, complains that he could have averted some of this year's cuts with timely help from Mr. Christopher during the May authorization process.
"When it counted, he was missing in action," the senator complains.
Even some Democratic allies on Capitol Hill argue that Mr. Christopher could have come away with more had he seized the initiative in trimming his own budget and reorganizing foreign affairs agencies.
Senator McConnell says it isn't just Mr. Christopher's style, arguing, "You can be quiet and persuasive."
John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, states simply that Mr. Christopher "is not an architect" of foreign policy.
This points to a larger criticism not just of Mr. Christopher but of the Clinton administration's overall approach to the post-Cold War world.
"This administration as a whole is not doing all that well," says Mr. Steinbruner. "They have not been able to develop a conception of what they're about."
What Congress or foreign policy experts think about Mr. Christopher would matter less if the president let everyone know he considered him a political asset. But in a dark moment for the administration, after Republicans gained control of Congress in November, Mr. Clinton waivered in his support.
Aides say Mr. Clinton chafed at the mounting criticism he faced over foreign policy and felt the public wasn't hearing enough about his successes. While Mr. Christopher is seen as a rock-steady public voice during a crisis and a man of unquestioned integrity, "he's not someone you can put in front of big rallies," one aide said.
Seeking reassurance, Mr. Christopher went to Mr. Clinton in December and, in "searching conversations," offered to resign.
"I thought that after two years it was time to take stock," Mr. Christopher said. "I'd had a very rough fall with almost constant travel. . . . I just wanted to make sure that I was doing what he wanted me to do."
Mr. Clinton eventually told Mr. Christopher he wanted him to stay "indefinitely" -- but only after sounding out General Powell and at least a couple of others to ask if they would replace him, officials say. The others haven't been identified, but one may have been Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat.
Mr. Christopher says he knew of the job offer to General Powell "contemporaneously." Still, he says of the president, "His expression of confidence enabled me to turn back to the effort with new energy and determination."
With optimism growing over Bosnia, White House officials now believe the whole administration foreign policy will start getting better marks with the public. "It was the concrete noose around everyone's neck," one official said.
Mr. Christopher's job should thus be safer than ever, particularly since the president wants to avoid a confirmation battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.
And as the election campaign heats up, a Christopher aide crowed, foreign policy may not even be an issue. "The biggest fight is between the protectionists and the isolationists" in the GOP, he said.