President Bush said Monday he would appoint his United Nations envoy, John D. Negroponte, ambassador to Iraq after the formal end of U.S. occupation on June 30, tapping a hardened career diplomat and troubleshooter to oversee the deep American role in the country.
Negroponte brings to the job more than four decades of diplomatic service in which he was often the agent of bitterly contested American foreign policy. The head of a human rights organization said Monday that the Senate should consider Negroponte’s record -- especially as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s -- before confirming him in his sensitive and dangerous post.
In Honduras, serving under President Reagan, Negroponte was known as “the Proconsul” for his influence in running the country. While he served as ambassador, Honduras became a center for covert U.S. activities against the leftist government of neighboring Nicaragua.
As ambassador to Baghdad, he would have to avoid appearing to be an American puppet-master to succeed in rebuilding relations among Iraqis, Americans and the United Nations.
If confirmed as ambassador to Iraq, Negroponte would oversee the largest U.S. embassy in the world, with a staff of about 3,000. He is seen as likely to be more low-key than L. Paul Bremer III, Bush’s current civilian administrator in Iraq. Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has been the face of the American occupation since May. Negroponte is more likely to be the U.S. workhorse, guiding the young government and looking out for a vital investment.
“If we’re turning political decision-making over to the Iraqis, that should in theory make the role of the [U.S.] ambassador somewhat less overwhelming,” said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at National Defense University. “The reality will be that our ambassador there will have a fairly influential hand.”
But other diplomats tied Negroponte’s appointment to his contacts at the United Nations, which Bush now hopes will play a larger role in Iraq. Some expressed concern that Washington is trying to dump its Iraq problems on the U.N. “There’s no question that the U.N. is the only way out of Iraq,” said a Security Council diplomat.
Despite the controversy, Democratic and Republican congressional sources said Negroponte is likely to be confirmed easily, in contrast to his nomination in 2001 as ambassador to the United Nations.
Negroponte’s confirmation hearing to the U.N. post triggered a fierce struggle over his human rights record. That fray ended abruptly after the Sept. 11 attacks made it vital for the United States to have an ambassador in place.
Human rights advocates charged that during his tenure in Honduras, Negroponte underplayed human rights abuses by death squads to ensure that the country would continue to serve as a base for U.S.-backed Contras who were fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
He denies the charge, but it lingers.
“There are serious unanswered questions about his complicity with the atrocities in Honduras and the war in Nicaragua , which happened under his nose, about which he claimed ignorance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which opposed Negroponte’s nomination to the U.N.
“The issue of whether U.S.-sponsored forces avoid complicity in atrocities, while not at the forefront of concern [in] the diplomatic corridors of the U.N., is going to be a major issue facing him if he goes to Baghdad,” Roth said.
“This is something the Senate should push him on, and seek assurances that he has learned the ugly lessons of his past tenure in Honduras. It’s absolutely still relevant.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of three of the 17 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who voted against Negroponte’s nomination, took a noncommittal stance Monday. “I am looking forward to asking Ambassador Negroponte his views on the path to success in Iraq,” she said.
During the U.N. nomination process, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the expected Democratic nominee for president, had also expressed concerns about Negroponte’s role in Honduras.
A spokeswoman for his presidential campaign said Monday the campaign had no immediate comment about Negroponte’s nomination.
As head of the U.S. mission in Baghdad, which one senior State Department official called an “embassy on steroids,” Negroponte would have the delicate job of trying to support a caretaker Iraqi government that is certain to be considered illegitimate by many Iraqis until elections are held in 2005.
He would have to manage a stalled reconstruction effort amid a stubborn insurgency and coordinate policy with an often-fractured administration in Washington, U.S. military forces in Iraq, the United Nations and U.S. allies.
Many diplomats said Bush was fortunate that Negroponte accepted the job.
“It’s a terribly tough job. It’s not only that it’s dangerous, it’s almost a no-win job, and you cannot satisfy everyone,” said William H. Luers, a friend of Negroponte’s and a former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela.
Luers said the Iraq post is even more dangerous than that of the U.S. envoy to Saigon during the Vietnam War, where Negroponte was once a junior political officer.
But Luers and many others pronounced Negroponte, a polyglot who has also served as ambassador to the Philippines and Mexico, more than up to the job.
Negroponte is close to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. In that sense, Negroponte’s appointment is symbolic of the transfer of responsibility for Iraq policy from the Department of Defense to the State Department on June 30, when the United States is slated to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis.
The unflappable Negroponte reportedly earned Bush’s trust by fighting doggedly for unpopular American positions at the United Nations.
Early in the Bush administration, Negroponte delivered to other U.N. ambassadors a threat to shut down U.S. military bases in any country whose government signed onto the International Criminal Court, which the administration opposed. Later, Negroponte negotiated the unanimous U.N. resolution 1441, which became the basis for the Iraq war.
Despite his role shepherding controversial policies, Negroponte maintains an unflappably diplomatic bearing.
“When I was in Mexico, the one lesson I learned is that you don’t rise to the bait,” he once told The Times. “I would never criticize anyone, and certainly not publicly. Even when things were not hunky-dory, I would say they were.”
Negroponte emerged from the Iraq battle at the U.N. with his reputation and friendships intact.
Even after the tensest periods of negotiation leading up to the war, Negroponte was praised by frequent skeptics.
“When Washington was engaged in serious U.N.-bashing and while his colleagues at the U.N. detested the attitude Washington was taking, they still liked John Negroponte,” said Nancy Soderberg, a Clinton administration envoy to the U.N. and frequent critic of Bush policies. “He’s well-liked, he has a gentle, deft touch, and Washington is very, very lucky he said yes.”
Other U.N. diplomats said Negroponte was willing to take more time to win the Security Council’s unanimous approval to invade Iraq, but was thwarted by Washington.
“He knew it was a total disaster happening [in the U.N.],” said one Security Council diplomat. “He was caught in the middle between an intransigent Washington and an environment where the resolution’s non-supporters were sticking together” to force Washington’s hand.
“After a point, he made no effort to really engage those opponents, but probably because he knew that Washington wasn’t buying anything,” the diplomat said.
But Negroponte proved later to Washington that it was possible to win the council’s consensus the hard way. Through seven weeks of dogged diplomacy, he won the council’s unanimous approval of the October 2003 resolution that recognized the Governing Council and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The vote was seen then as a symbolic mending of the rift that had been opened by the debate over Iraq.
Announcing Negroponte’s appointment from the Oval Office on Monday, Bush said, “He has done a really good job of speaking for the United States to the world about our intentions to spread freedom and peace.... John Negroponte is a man of enormous experience and skill.”
Other candidates who were reportedly on Bush’s short list for the Iraq job were Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, senior National Security Council aide Robert D. Blackwill and Thomas R. Pickering, another former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
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John D. Negroponte
Place of birth: London
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Yale University, 1960
Diplomatic experience: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 2001-present; ambassador to the Philippines, 1993-96; ambassador to Mexico, 1989-93; assistant secretary of State for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, 1985-87; ambassador to Honduras, 1981-85; deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, 1980-81; deputy assistant secretary of State for oceans and fisheries affairs, 1977-79; joined the foreign service in 1960.
Other government experience: Deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, 1987-89
Private-sector experience: Executive vice president for global markets, McGraw-Hill Cos., 1997-2001
Family: Wife, Diana; five children
Source: Associated Press
Efron reported from Washington and Farley from New York.