John Negroponte: The most powerful man in Iraq?

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The Independent Online

In the end, he slipped into America's most important diplomatic post like a wraith in the night, not as the plenipotentiary envoy of a swaggering superpower. Just hours after Paul Bremer, the outgoing US proconsul in Baghdad, handed over power two days early to the new interim government, John Negroponte arrived unannounced that same Monday evening to assume his duties as the first US ambassador to the newly sovereign post-Saddam Iraq.

Announced or otherwise however, Negroponte will soon be making his presence felt. It will not be in the blunt and peremptory fashion of Bremer, but in the understated, smoother style of one of America's most experienced and skilled career diplomats. To colleagues, the new ambassador modestly insists that his task is simple: to transfer as much power to the Iraqis as possible, as quickly as possible. In reality he will be taking up the most challenging, and probably the most dangerous diplomatic post on earth.

Negroponte will head the biggest US mission anywhere, with 3,000 staff in all. He must see that the $18bn of US money earmarked for Iraq is finally disbursed. He must build a good working relationship not just with the interim government of Iyad Allawi, but with General George Casey, the new US commander in Iraq. Unobtrusively, he must help to nudge the country towards new elections and a new constitution. Most important of all, he has somehow to restore America's shattered image across Iraq, turning disliked occupier into trusted friend.

Mission impossible? Maybe. But there are a few hopeful signs. For one thing, his very presence signifies that control of America's Iraq policy is reverting from the blundering, ideology-driven civilians at the Pentagon to the grown-ups at the State Department. As head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremer reported to Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Negroponte's boss will be his old friend Colin Powell.

Like Bremer, Negroponte will be the most powerful man in Iraq. But the power he wields will be of a softer variety. If he pulls the strings, it will not be obvious - in contrast to Bremer who strode about his domain in his dark suit and trademark brown army boots, dispensing dozens of orders every day.

"John is sophisticated and subtle about complex layers of motivations and behaviour, unlike Bremer who sees everything in black-and-white terms," said Richard Holbrooke, like Negroponte a former US ambassador to the United Nations. The source of the praise is noteworthy. Holbrooke, an unabashed Democrat, might well be Secretary of State in a John Kerry administration.

But his friendship with Negroponte dates back to when they were bright young US diplomats in Saigon in the mid-1960s. (A third member of this informal Vietnam vets' club is Anthony Lake, President Clinton's first national security adviser and another enduring Negroponte friend.)

The modus operandi of the new ambassador to Iraq was evident during his two-and-a-half-year stint at the UN. He never deviated from the Washington line - but he read the script with a good deal more elegance and urbanity than the neo-con warriors in Washington. Journalists were well aware that when he took the microphone in the press area immediately outside the Security Council, they would learn nothing new. But they much appreciated how he glided effortlessly between English, Spanish and French to answer their questions.

Negroponte has a true diplomat's iron discipline that even the most insistent questioning cannot dent. He never flaps, grandstands or seeks glory for himself. He has a reputation for fairness and civility with which the Bush administration is not usually associated. And all this despite the fact that his UN stint may have been less than satisfying. Not only was he subject to the three-line whip from Washington, which gave him little role in formulating Iraq policy, but also the job itself had been subtly downgraded. Unlike UN ambassadors under Bill Clinton, Negroponte did not enjoy cabinet status.

That might have been frustrating enough for a man who - after service in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Ecuador, Greece, Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines - had imagined he would be free for ever of diplomatic duties when he retired from the foreign service in 1997. It was his old friend and admirer Powell who changed his mind, persuading Negroponte to give up his high-paying job as a senior executive in the McGraw Hill media group to return to the colours as envoy to the UN. And now Iraq, described with diplomatic understatement by Powell at Negroponte's swearing-in ceremony last week in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room as "one of the toughest and most critical positions in all of government". The hardships will be acutely personal as well as well as professional.

Barred by State Department rules (as well as common sense) from taking his family with him to Baghdad, Negroponte will perforce be seeing much less of his British wife, Diana, who is the daughter of the late British Steel chairman Sir Charles Villiers, and their five children. Trading the UN ambassador's ritzy suite in the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue for temporary premises in the razor wire-encircled Green Zone in Baghdad cannot have been very enticing either.

In New York his record was mixed. He is credited above all with persuading his colleagues in November 2002 unanimously to adopt Resolution 1441 that gave Saddam one last chance to disarm or face war. Adding to the achievement, some of his work was done over the phone from a sick bed - Negroponte, who is 64, underwent surgery for prostate cancer shortly before.

Few American public servants have as cosmopolitan a background as John Dimitri Negroponte. Born in London and the son of a Greek shipping magnate, he grew up in England, Switzerland and New York. He speaks five languages. (Vietnamese and Greek are the other two.) After attending the élite Exeter Academy and Yale, he joined the US diplomatic service in 1960. Soon he was catapulted into the thick of Washington policy-making, aiding (and even daring on occasion to argue with) his redoubtable boss Henry Kissinger at the Paris Conference which in 1973 ended the US combat role in Vietnam.

After marrying Diana, a one-time society hostess and career lawyer, Negroponte swiftly ascended the diplomatic ladder and eventually served as American ambassador in countries as far flung as Mexico, Panama and the Philippines. Diana and he over time adopted five children, all from Honduras, the eldest of whom is now university age. But if Honduras brought him personal joy, the country also represents his most lasting and painful professional wound - the allegations that he turned a blind eye to grave human rights abuses in that country between 1981 to 1985 while heading the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.

His time in Honduras coincided with Central America's spell on the front lines of the Cold War. The United States was assisting the Contra rebels in their efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista regime in neighbouring Nicaragua. Honduras, considered by Washington then as nominally democratic and friendly, was the ideal launching pad for the rebels' operations and a refuge when they had to run from trouble.

It was Negroponte's job to keep the generals, who in practice ran Honduras, on side and to give them the aid - in the form of dollars and military back-up - that they required. The charge against him is that he sacrificed respect for human rights to the wider strategic goals of that time. At his 2001 confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, evidence was presented that his embassy was fully aware of serial abuses committed by the generals against leftists inside Honduras, including death squads, but that it refused to intervene to stop them. Nor, human rights groups maintained, did Negroponte properly report the abuses to Washington, for fear they would prompt a skittish Congress to withhold future aid from the country.

Primarily responsible for the death squads was an élite unit of the Honduran army known as Battalion 3-16, which was allegedly responsible for dozens being executed, including an American priest.

"Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence," a former Honduran congressman, Efrain Diaz, told the Baltimore Sun, which in 1995 published a lengthy investigation into the claims against the embassy staff and Negroponte. "They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed."

The newspaper's probe, based partly on newly released government papers, found that the CIA and US embassy knew of numerous abuses but continued to support Battalion 3-16 and ensured that the embassy's annual human rights report omitted the worst details. To this day, however, Negroponte rebuts the charges, insisting that the abuses were not government policy and that organised death squads did not operate in Honduras.

In the end - doubtless hastened by the 11 September attacks, which occurred in the middle of the hearings - the Committee gave Negroponte bipartisan approval for the UN job, by 14 votes to three. Last month too, as they rushed through his Iraq confirmation, the Senators decided to go gently with a man who had been given so poisoned a chalice. As Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island declared, "So far as the US public is concerned, anyone who wants this job is welcome to it." It was left to a bearded man in the audience to raise the issue that never goes away. "What about death squad 3-16, Mr Negroponte?" yelled Andres Conteris, a human rights activist who spent five years in Honduras. Mr Conteris was escorted from the hearing room. Cool as ever, the object of his ire did not bat an eyelid. And, in a sense, why should he? Honduras was ultimately a sideshow. In Iraq, in his understated fashion, Mr Negroponte will be playing the lead role in the most closely watched show on earth.


Born: 21 July 1939 in London to , Dimitri John Negroponte, a Greek-American shipping magnate, and Catherine.

Family: Married to Diana Villiers Negroponte, a history professor. They have five children, adopted from Honduras.

Education: Phillips Exeter Academy (1956) and Yale University (BA, 1960).

Career: Diplomat US Foreign Service (1960-97), postings included Ambassador to Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines; Deputy Assistant to the President (Ronald Reagan) for National Security Affairs, (1987-89); Vice President, McGraw-Hill (1997-2001); Ambassador to the UN (2001-04); Ambassador to Iraq (2004- )

He says...: "I do not have any regrets about the way we carried out US policies in Central America."

They say...: "There are two streams of analysis about John Negroponte, one is that he is a distinguished career diplomatic officer. The other is that he is a rogue, a jackanapes, a bounder of the worst type." - Larry Birns, Director of Council on Hemispheric Affairs