Lawrence Eagleburger: The only career diplomat to serve as US Secretary of State

Lawrence Eagleburger was one of the shortest serving Secretaries of State.

But he was also unique, as the only career diplomat ever to have held the top-ranking post in the US Cabinet. He entered the foreign service as a humble vice-consul in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in 1957. More than three decades later, in the twilight of the administration of George HW Bush, he was sworn in as the country's 62nd Secretary of State.

He held the job for barely six weeks, until Bill Clinton became President on 20 January 1993 – though he had been acting Secretary since August, when his boss, James Baker, reluctantly returned to the White House to take charge of the foundering Bush re-election campaign. But even Baker's savvy and organisational skills could not save the day, and 36 years after he first entered it, Eagleburger left the State Department for the last time.

What sort of Secretary of State he would have made had he served longer can only be guessed at. He was no one's version of the identikit diplomat. He was portly (to put it politely) and walked with a cane. His suits tended to be crumpled. He smoked three packets of cigarettes a day and also suffered from asthma – a combination that gave his voice a wheezy, throaty quality. His wit was quick, sometimes bordering on the testy, and he rarely shied from expressing an opinion

There was a certain conceit, too. What normal man called Lawrence would give all three of his sons that very same name? "First of all, it was ego," he once said of that piece of whimsy (the three children perforce go by their middle names of Scott, Andrew and Jason). And second, he added with trademark trenchancy, "I wanted to screw up the Social Security system."

Such eccentricities, however, did not prevent him becoming a pillar of the foreign policy establishment. In political terms, Eagleburger was a moderate Republican. But above all he belonged to the "realist" school of foreign affairs – able, as diplomats should be able, to serve administrations of either party with equal ease. After Honduras, and a spell at the Belgrade embassy, Eagleburger went back to Washington in 1965 to serve as assistant to the former Democratic Secretary of State Dean Acheson, brought back into harness as special adviser to President Johnson on French and Nato affairs.

Next came a switch to the White House and the National Security Council, where he helped in 1968 with the transition to the Republican administration of Richard Nixon. Quickly, he caught the eye of the incoming NSC adviser, Henry Kissinger. After stints at the US mission to Nato in Brussels and an international security official at the Pentagon, Eagleburger rejoined Kissinger at the White House, and later followed him to the State Department.

Despite the Kissinger connection, the next President – the Democrat Jimmy Carter – sent Eagleburger back to Belgrade, this time as Ambassador, where he served for three years. In 1981, with a Republican back in the White House, Eagleburger became Ronald Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, and then, in February 1982, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, the third-ranking position in the Department.

In 1984, he formally retired from the foreign service, and moved to the richer pastures of New York, where he became President of Kissinger Associates, the blue riband consultancy set up by his old mentor. But Eagleburger's career in government was not over. In 1989, he was named Deputy Secretary of State by the incoming President, GHW Bush.

His deftness and competence served well in two of the great diplomatic challenges of the time, the unravelling of the Soviet Empire and the crisis following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. In a third, however, Eagleburger was less successful. He had maintained close ties with Belgrade since his ambassadorial days, but as the former Yugoslavia fell apart he was accused of being far too accommodating of the bullying Slobodan Milosevic – "Lawrence of Serbia" his European critics dubbed him. Serbia's wars against Croatia and Bosnia were a bitter epitaph when he left office for the last time.

Thereafter Eagleburger held various lucrative jobs in the private sector, among them director of Halliburton – the oil services company headed by Dick Cheney, who was later to become vice-President. His advice was also in steady demand in Washington, where he most recently served as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group – whose thoughtful 2006 recommendations for ending the war were initially ignored by President George W Bush.

Had Eagleburger had his way, however, the disaster might not have occurred. In August 2002, five months before the invasion, the father's old retainer spoke out on Fox News, the loudest media cheerleader for the White House, explaining why the son should not rush to war.

"I'm scared to death the Richard Perles and Paul Wolfowitzes [two leading neo-con architects of the war] are arguing that we can do it in a cakewalk, when I think it will take some hundreds of thousands of troops at least," he declared. "And it doesn't seem to me that we've thought through at all what we do when we overthrow him. Are we going to stay there for the next six years?" The Fox interviewers barely concealed their scorn. But once again, cantankerous and grumpy though he might on occasion be, Lawrence Eagleburger had proved he was worth listening to.

Lawrence Sidney Eagleburger, diplomat and US government official: born Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1 August 1930; entered US Foreign Service 1957; US Ambassador to Yugoslavia 1977-1981; US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs 1982-1984; Deputy Secretary of State 1989-1992, Secretary of State 1992-1993; married firstly (marriage dissolved; one son), 1966 Marlene Ann Heinemann (died 2010; two sons); died Charlottesville, Virginia 4 June 2011.

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