Is John Negroponte the right man to run Iraq for the United States? That’s the question that people from Washington to Baghdad are asking in the wake of his nomination as ambassador. Even President Bush, never one for an honest assessment of the challenges posed by Iraq, concedes that Negroponte will have a “very difficult assignment.”
The enormity of Negroponte’s task cannot be underestimated. The current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations inherits a situation that is precarious on the best days and fatally unstable on most. From the moment he lands, Negroponte’s every move will be scrutinized. And the management challenge is huge: embassy Baghdad will be our largest diplomatic post in the world, with more than 3,000 employees.
Negroponte, moreover, will have no time to prove himself to the Iraqi people; the honeymoon with American occupiers is long over. Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer has worked hard but has had little success in solving the three major dilemmas: how best to quell unrest and persuade the population that he is an ally rather than a modern day Roman proconsul; how to form a government that has real legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqi citizens; and how to manage a vast reconstruction effort and oversee the implementation of billions of dollars of aid in an exceedingly fluid and volatile political environment.
And then there is the challenge that will dog Negroponte from day one – striking the right balance between his own authority and that of U.S. military commanders regarding the complex interconnection between security and reconstruction. He must assert control after a year of Pentagon dominance in Iraq despite the prospect that his best advocate, Colin Powell, will soon leave the State Department.
One can only admire the courage Negroponte shows in undertaking this tremendously difficult assignment – and his courage in assuming the post despite the obvious physical dangers. And there are many who believe that Negroponte is just the person to find the elusive answers. Supporters hail him as a “diplomat’s diplomat,” someone who has proved politic, forceful and versatile in the course of nearly 40 years of government service. Negroponte speaks Vietnamese, French, Spanish, and Greek – though, alas, not Arabic – and his adoption of five Honduran children demonstrates deep humanity and cultural affinity for other societies.
Some have suggested that the two most relevant items on Negroponte’s resume are his posting to Saigon in the mid-1960s and his role as aide to Henry Kissinger during the Paris Peace talks. It is said that Negroponte resigned because he thought Kissinger had made too many concessions during the negotiations. He reportedly informed Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu of as much in March of 1973: “We really screwed you guys.”
In his most recent assignment, Negroponte has earned praise from many quarters, and last year he showcased his diplomatic skill by helping win the unanimous support of the Security Council for Resolution 1441. The passage of this resolution – which demanded that Saddam Hussein either comply with weapons inspections or face military action – was one of the few diplomatic battles won by the United States in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
But while Negroponte possesses on paper the wide experience and credentials that one would expect of the world’s first “super ambassador,” a closer look at his career raises some serious questions about whether he can and will effectively promote the interests of the American and Iraqi people.
First, Negroponte has yet to emerge from the dark cloud of suspicion that hangs over his tenure as ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985. For the past 20 years, he has been unable to dispel the charge that he “underplayed human rights abuses by death squads to ensure that [the country] would continue to serve as a base for U.S.-backed Contras” (LA Times, 4/20/04).
As recently as September 2001, at his highly contentious confirmation hearings for the U.N. post, several Senators expressed their deep concern over Negroponte’s failure to respond to the emergence of Honduran death squads. In particular, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut was troubled by the appearance that “Ambassador Negroponte knew far more about government perpetuated human rights abuses than he chose to share… in Embassy contributions at the time to annual State Department Human Rights report.”
In the context of Iraq, these charges gain fresh relevance. Respect for human rights must be a cornerstone of a new Iraqi civil society. As ambassador, Negroponte will oversee a complex and unstable security situation in which such fundamental rights will be in constant jeopardy – yet in Honduras he proved, at best, oblivious to the systematic violations that took place under his watch.
Second, there is the possibility that Negroponte’s tenure at the United Nations has undermined his credibility with regard to Iraq, not enhanced it. Aside from a few isolated instances of accord (such as Resolution 1441), the relationship between the United States and the international community has, by all accounts, rapidly deteriorated over the past three years. Consequently, the appointment of Negroponte may be read as yet another sign that the United States remains only superficially interested in internationalizing the reconstruction effort.
Third, Negroponte has holes in his resume that might handicap him. For all of his years of service, he has never been posted in the Middle East and has had minimal experience working on issues in this region prior to his tour as U.N. ambassador. And while the administration has at last recognized the importance of opening up direct lines of communication with ordinary Iraqis, Negroponte does not speak Arabic=
This lack of first-hand experience in the region is cause for concern, particularly given the importance that the administration attaches to Iraq as a vanguard of democracy in a “new” Middle East. Bremer’s record provides a case in point: his inexperience showed in the decision to abolish rather than reform the Iraqi military. A largely unemployed Iraqi Army subsequently gravitated toward the insurgency and now presents a major security challenge to the U.S. occupation.
Fourth, Negroponte has never been involved in – much less managed – a post-conflict reconstruction. Unlike someone who has participated on the ground in Bosnia, Haiti, or Afghanistan, Negroponte has not had to work with Congress to gather financial backing for long-term reconstruction projects, nor has he worked with the military to coordinate security and stability operations within a broader political strategy.
With the handover over power in Iraq rapidly approaching, there is no time for Negroponte to fill in the troubling gaps in his experience. The question is not whether he has the capacity to acquire the skills and expertise needed to succeed, but whether he has these skills now. The answer will soon be abundantly clear.
Peter Ogden is a fellows assistant at the Center for American Progress.