Bush picks U.N. envoy for embassy in Baghdad

Negroponte's experience in diplomacy is extensive -- except in Middle East

April 20, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis scheduled to occur in 10 weeks, President Bush announced yesterday his selection of John D. Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.

The 64-year-old Negroponte, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has extensive experience in just about every region of the world - except the Middle East.

He has already served in controversial situations. He was a State Department official in Vietnam during the high point of the war there. He was also the U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, when army death squads held sway. Negroponte was later accused by human rights activists of having done little to limit the death squads' activities or to bring pressure to bear on the Honduran government.

"John Negroponte is a man of enormous experience and skill " who "has done a really good job of speaking for the United States to the world about our intentions to spread freedom and peace," Bush said at the White House yesterday, seated next to Negroponte.

Bush said there was "no doubt in my mind [Negroponte] can handle it, no doubt in my mind he will do a very good job, and there's no doubt in my mind that Iraq will be free and democratic and peaceful."

The ambassadorship requires Senate confirmation. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, which would hold a hearing and vote on the nomination, said he backs Bush's choice and would work to swiftly schedule a hearing.

Despite his broad experience, Negroponte will face steep challenges in Iraq, where a stubborn insurgency against a U.S. occupation is beginning to draw comparisons to Vietnam. Negroponte, who is not an expert on the Arab world, will be taking charge of a heavily guarded mission of 3,000 people that will be the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

The Bush administration was known to favor an ambassador who could run a sprawling establishment - like the U.S. mission to the United Nations - and be able to work well with the U.S. military once power is transferred to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.

Contrast to Bremer

The low-key Negroponte is expected to present a contrast to the current civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, a forceful and telegenic presence on Sunday talk shows and elsewhere.

Negroponte served as an aide to Henry A. Kissinger during the Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he served as ambassador to Mexico and then to the Philippines, having earlier held consular jobs in Ecuador and Greece.

During his four-decade diplomatic career, Negroponte was also a deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries affairs before becoming deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Negroponte arrived at the United Nations one week after the Sept. 11 attacks, after being grilled by the Foreign Relations Committee about human rights abuses committed in Honduras while he was ambassador from 1981 to 1985.

Questioned on Honduras

Committee members questioned whether Negroponte had played down or knowingly failed to report government abuses, possibly affecting congressional support for the Reagan administration's plan to build up the military in neighboring Central American nations.

In 1995, The Sun published a series about a Honduran army unit that was trained and equipped by the CIA and that kidnapped, tortured and executed hundreds of suspected subversives during the 1980s. The articles showed that Negroponte had access to information about abuses committed by the battalion.

Negroponte said he had served "honorably and conscientiously in a manner fully consistent with and faithful to applicable laws and policies."

Last year, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Negroponte said he saw little hope that Iraq would voluntarily disarm. "They are not cooperating unconditionally," he said. "In the days ahead, we believe the council and its member governments must face its responsibilities."

Negroponte and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a longtime friend, succeeded in persuading the U.N. Security Council to give unanimous approval to the resolution requiring Hussein to disarm or face "serious consequences."

But the council did not endorse the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A U.N. resolution to support it was withdrawn in the face of a threatened veto by France.

Last fall, Negroponte and Powell, after weeks of negotiations, were credited with the council's unanimous approval of a U.S.-backed resolution that included exclusive U.S. control over Iraq's political affairs and an authorization of a multinational peacekeeping force under American command.

The resolution called on U.N. member nations to contribute money and troops to ease the burden on U.S. troops and help stabilize the country.

"It's a way of saying, `Look, the argument about the military action back in March is behind us,'" Negroponte said of the 15-0 vote. "No matter what you think of that, you've got to move forward. So how do you move forward?"

Six months later - with some coalition troops leaving Iraq, a rising insurgency and mounting American combat deaths - that question is still being asked.

Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

John D. Negroponte

New Position: Nominated to become U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Age and occupation: 64, currently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

Career: Diplomat since 1960, including controversial term as ambassador to Honduras.

Outlook: Will head largest U.S. embassy in history, with a staff of more than 3,000 Americans.

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