At a recent luncheon for a score of American executives, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger introduced the guest speaker, Thomas R. Pickering, the departing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"Our distinguished ambassador . . . " Kissinger reportedly intoned, pausing for effect, "too distinguished for some people."
Kissinger's ironic inside joke alluded to a widespread belief among American and foreign officials, both at the United Nations and in Washington, that Secretary of State James A. Baker III is transferring Pickering to India because Pickering did his job too well.
Baker's problem with him, according to this view, was subtle and complex: Pickering succeeded because of his ability to think quickly and negotiate swiftly without waiting for Washington to plot his every move and word.
But that independence--no matter how much it helped the Bush Administration in forging the alliance against Iraq in the Persian Gulf crisis, no matter how closely Pickering followed the basic tenets of U.S. policy--annoyed Baker and his coterie of top aides. It made them feel Pickering was not under control.
Baker, however, insists that Pickering's move was simply a normal transfer at the end of three years of duty. Asked at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing why he was transferring the ambassador, Baker replied, "Because the President instituted a policy . . . for three years of service for both Foreign Service and career diplomats."
"So Tom's three years is up?" asked Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).
"Yes, sir, absolutely," Baker replied. "And for no other reason."
Baker's explanation, however, has evoked a good deal of skepticism.
"It's pretty thin, isn't it?" notes a senior French diplomat.
"Even if you could justify the three-year rule," says Richard N. Gardner, a Columbia University professor of international law who has served both as an ambassador and as a State Department official, "since when have we considered the U.N. ambassador as just another ambassador?
"Here you have a man who is certainly the equal of Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Goldberg, two U.N. ambassadors I worked with and used to think were the best, and, in some regards, he is better," Gardner says. "Here we are in a crucial moment in the history of the U.N. . . . At this very moment, you take out this superior ambassador and replace him with someone who has no experience at the U.N. How does that serve the national interests of this country?"
In May, Pickering will be replaced by Edward Perkins, 63, director general of the Foreign Service, the official in charge of personnel at the State Department. Perkins is best known as the only black American to serve as ambassador to South Africa. Many diplomats doubt he will ever annoy Baker with any shows of independence.
"Ed is an unusual guy," says a retired American ambassador who knows both Pickering and Perkins well. "He is kind of Lincoln-esque, large, craggy-featured, a man of tremendous honesty, very deeply committed to principle. . . .
"But," this former envoy adds of Perkins, "he is not inclined to be light with people or quick on his feet. He has probity, solidity. He is a man who doesn't get rattled, doesn't get pushed around. Those were great strengths dealing with South Africa. But these strengths are his weaknesses at the U.N.
"You have got to be very fast on your feet at the U.N. You can't consult Washington for every give and take. Pickering was fantastic for the job up there, but I don't think Perkins is the right man for the job."
The impending change is the talk of the United Nations, sowing puzzlement among foreign diplomats along with a disturbing sense that Pickering's move may reflect a lack of commitment by the Administration to the world body, despite all the President's rhetoric about a new world order.
Pickering, a tall, balding, 60-year-old, had served as ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, Israel and El Salvador before President Bush named him ambassador to the United Nations--only the third career foreign service officer to hold that position.
Pickering refuses to discuss his transfer with reporters. But according to several sources, all speaking anonymously, he had mainly irritated two State Department officials: John R. Bolton--assistant secretary for international organizations and the ambassador's superior on the department's organizational charts--and, far more important, Margaret Tutwiler, assistant secretary for public affairs and longtime Baker confidante, who acts as the department spokeswoman.
"Pickering would say things at the United Nations," says a staff member of a key decision maker at State, "that were not contrary to State Department policy and might even have logically followed State Department policy but had not been specifically approved by the top people. . . .
"As a result," he adds, "Tutwiler got upset when she was asked questions about something that Pickering said and (she) did not know what to reply. These people do not like someone who is out of their control."
It is well known that Baker trusts only half a dozen aides, most from outside the career foreign service. This small group likes to make all decisions on issues that matter. And at least during the Persian Gulf crisis, the U.N. mattered. But, by the nature of the job, Pickering could not be kept on a leash like other ambassadors and State Department officials.
"The pace in New York is faster than the pace in Washington," says a retired American ambassador. "The two can get out of sync."
The public spotlight on Pickering at the United Nations exacerbated the problem. "Tutwiler thinks that publicity is a zero-sum game," says a former American diplomat who also worked as a U.N. official. "In her view, any publicity that anyone gets detracts from Baker."
But at the United Nations, diplomats insist that it is impossible for American ambassadors to keep mum if they want to do the job well. In early March, for example, when Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz pleaded with the Security Council to ease sanctions, Pickering was called upon to reply immediately.
When the session ended, reporters surrounded Pickering to delve further into the American position. There was no time to consult with State Department officials. If Pickering had kept quiet, the Iraqis would have dominated the news.
Ironically, some U.N. diplomats look on Pickering's independence--the very quality that angered Washington--as one of his main strengths in the Security Council.
"Pickering worked in the best interests of the United States," says the senior French diplomat. "First of all, he knew enough about the U.N. to warn the State Department against doing something foolish. He also knew how to negotiate with the members of the Security Council so they would feel part of the process. . . .
"He also had so much experience in the Third World that he knew how to be sensitive to Third World feelings," he adds. "That is very important. When you have a country like the United States that is preeminent to the others, the others do not like to feel this."
Although the tension between New York and Washington was obvious, Pickering's aides can recall only two reprimands. The first came during the height of the Gulf crisis when a member of Tutwiler's staff complained that Pickering's photo had appeared three times in the New York Times in a 10-day period.
The second came after the General Assembly voted late last year to overturn the longstanding resolution equating Zionism with racism. After the vote, Pickering wrote letters thanking those ambassadors who had either voted in favor of revoking the Zionism resolution or had abstained.
One of the thank-you letters went to the Trinidad ambassador for abstaining. But Washington had expected Trinidad to vote in favor, not just to abstain; no thank you was deserved.
Pickering soon received a note of reprimand from Bolton's office.
"It was as if the State Department was saying, 'Gotcha! We finally caught Pickering in a mistake!' " says a diplomat at the American mission to the United Nations.
Pickering's transfer has angered and confused so many diplomats at the U.N., including Americans, that Perkins, the new ambassador, will surely face close scrutiny when he takes up his new work.
Comparisons seem unfair: Perkins is untried at the United Nations. Still, he is a former ambassador to Liberia and South Africa with a doctorate from USC.
Moreover, he can take solace from the fact that some critics greeted the appointment of Pickering with moans. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jefferson Morley, the Washington editor of the Nation magazine, described Pickering then as so low-key that "he breathes new life into the concept of blandness."
Neither Bush nor Baker need worry about him, Morley predicted at that time, because "Pickering will provide no sound-bite competition from his drab office on United Nations Plaza."
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Robert C. Toth in Washington contributed to this report.
U.N. Envoys: A Question of Style Thomas R. Pickering is being transferred because he did his job too well, some say. Many doubt his replacement, Edward Perkins, will annoy the Administration with the same independent style. He's In
Career highlights: Louisiana native . . . B.A., University of Maryland; M.A., Ph. D., University of Southern California . . . political affairs counselor, Accra, Ghana . . . deputy chief of mission, Monrovia, Liberia . . . director, Office of West African Affairs, State Department . . . U.S. ambassador to Liberia . . . U.S. ambassador to South Africa . . . director general, director personnel, Foreign Service.
Career highlights: New Jersey native . . . A.B., Bowdoin; M.A. Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; M.A., University of Melbourne . . . joined Foreign Service . . . ambassador to Jordan . . . assistant secretary, Bureau Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs . . . ambassador to Nigeria . . . ambassador to El Salvador . . . ambassador to Israel . . . assigned post of ambassador to India.