Students Get an Insider's View of Foreign Policy

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps, the young UCLA student inquired of her eminent professor, he might tell the class just a little more about his life and experiences?

How about the time, for instance, that he helped negotiate the deal that won the freedom of the Iranian hostages? Or the time he had to persuade a suddenly recalcitrant Yasser Arafat to sign a crucial 1994 agreement with Israel? Or the time he emerged, shaken, from a violent demonstration in Taipei?

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, attorney, author, and now a fledgling college professor, responded graciously to the student's suggestion. Of course, he told 19-year-old Katherine Collins, he could offer a bit more of his personal insights.

"But he said he wants to hear what we think, too," Collins said, sounding surprised that anyone might care.

Dignified, careful and as self-effacing as ever, Christopher, 77, has been teaching a weekly seminar on international affairs to a small group of UCLA undergraduates. With the world entering an unusually anxious spring, the course could hardly be more timely, focusing on such international flashpoints as Iraq, North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The students in the seminar -- 10 women and 10 men -- were selected by Christopher. After 130 asked to enroll, he required each to write a one-page essay, arguing a case for inclusion. Those he chose represent a range of backgrounds and political views. They are mostly juniors and seniors, with a sprinkling of sophomores and one lucky freshman, Nicholas Koletic, 18. ("I pretty much had to beg," he said.)

Christopher, who cultivated a behind-the-scenes style in his years as the nation's top diplomat, chose to forgo a traditional, lecture-style approach in this, his first stint as a college professor. Instead, his students for the most part educate one another on topics they are assigned to research, with Christopher's guidance and gentle interjections.

On a recent Monday, Christopher, casually dressed in khakis and a bright red sweater (he was known in his Washington years for his custom-made suits), introduced the day's topic, the AIDS crisis in Africa. He spoke briefly, telling the class how the topic arose during one of his final trips to South Africa as secretary of state, in 1996.

Christopher said he'd met with Nelson Mandela -- "it's such a thrill to go to lunch with Mandela" -- then met with the president's soon-to-be successor, Thabo Mbeki. He was impressed with Mbeki, Christopher said, with one exception -- the South African's position on AIDS. "He was convinced that AIDS in Africa was somehow different, that it was caused somehow by poverty," and not by the HIV virus, Christopher said, adding that Mbeki appears to have changed his mind since.

Each class begins the same way, with Christopher introducing the topic with a brief anecdote from his own experience.

In a recent class, three students made oral presentations on aspects of the AIDS crisis. Three others then questioned them, acting as "George Will-style interlocutors" as Christopher put it, trying to draw more information out of the presenters and starting a discussion.

What effect is the AIDS crisis having on the stability of countries like Senegal and Botswana, one student asked? How can the U.S. and other governments be sure, another asked, that donated aid, including AIDS medications, actually reach the people who need them?

Senior Eric Haren, 22, wondered if the U.S. administration could require that drug firms, in order to operate within the United States, give affected countries a cost break on AIDS drugs. Several students seized on the idea, then Collins turned to the diplomat in their midst.

"How feasible is that?" she asked him, then teased, "You're the lawyer!"

"You're getting me a bit out of my depth," he protested, laughing. "I'm not here in my role as a lawyer, but the issue of whether the U.S. wants to use its leverage on a company is really a political question. But I wouldn't expect to see a push for that from the U.S., where the issue of private property is so important."

The class, which had its final meeting of the quarter Friday, got more relaxed as it went on, participants said. Students grew more accustomed to giving their own views.

"At the beginning, we were all kind of dealing with the 'wow factor,' " said Michael Falcone, a senior majoring in political science and English. "You're dealing with this man who's negotiated the Iranian hostage crisis and is a friend of presidents and prime ministers. It's pretty daunting, but there's also something about his manner that's so welcoming, it really facilitates a good discussion."

Or, as Collins put it: "We were all so nervous the first day, we're walking in saying, like, 'What do we even call him?' " Most finally settled on "Secretary Christopher."

The students say they have greatly enjoyed the class. But several said they also wished that Christopher, known both as a skilled negotiator and as a man who shunned the limelight as President Clinton's first secretary of State, had stepped forward with his views a little more.

Christopher pointed out that his opinions are not a secret. For example, in January, he criticized the Bush administration's approach to Iraq and North Korea, writing on the New York Times opinion page that developments in North Korea "presented compelling reasons for President Bush to step back from his fixation on attacking Iraq and to reassess his administration's priorities." But such strong views are rarely offered in class, his students said.

Christopher, who has lived off and on in the L.A. area since college, returned to his old law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, as senior partner after leaving government in 1997. But he has stayed involved in civic and national affairs, among other things overseeing Al Gore's search for a running mate in his 2000 presidential campaign. (Such sensitive assignments are nothing new for Christopher; in 1991, he headed the commission that recommended sweeping reforms in the L.A. Police Department after the Rodney King beating.)

Talked into trying teaching by a friend, UCLA Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett, Christopher said he found it "very exciting to be around people who are this young and this able." He said he hopes several might pursue foreign policy careers.

But Christopher, who taught the class gratis, said he would "wait for the reviews" before deciding whether to teach again. "I want to see if the format accomplished what I wanted it to, getting students to understand the real complexity of foreign policy issues," he said.

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