washingtonpost.comJohn Dimitri Negroponte, is he even a USA Citizen?Fri Feb 18, 2005 00:1222.214.171.124
Ambassador With Big Portfolio
John Negroponte Goes to Baghdad With A Record of Competence, and Controversy
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page C01
For decades, he had answered calls just like this one.
A diplomat needed, harsh terrain, intrigue on the ground. And off he'd go, big suitcases all packed, debonair and nervy all at once.
This time when the White House called, the mission was one that could cap a long and provocative career: Baghdad.
Then there he was, John Negroponte, cameras flashing, posing with the president, the new ambassador nominee -- since confirmed -- to Iraq.
With the stumbles in that country striking many as maddening -- and the praise that followed the Negroponte announcement -- it sounded as if President Bush had found a man to settle things, to wade into the bloodshed and dust and anger and fix what had gone so horribly wrong.
He had the kind of pedigree that might have brightened the writerly muscle of Somerset Maugham: ambassador to the United Nations, to the Philippines, to Mexico. Adviser to the White House under national security adviser Colin Powell. And he had served in that crucible for a generation of young men: Vietnam. He was known to be comfortable in the shadows, at ease with secrets. He had served in Honduras. Plenty of secrets there.
Praise poured forth from both sides of the political divide.
"He is far more qualified than [Paul] Bremer," says Richard Holbrooke, speaking of the Bush point man in Iraq. Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the U.N. himself, first met Negroponte in the early 1960s and later brought him to Washington during the Carter administration. "John is subtle, Bremer is black and white. John understands ambiguity."
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger thought so much of the young Negroponte that he chose him to be a member of his staff at the Paris peace talks to end the war in Vietnam. "He brings great steadiness and solidity," Kissinger says of Negroponte's new challenge. "He has patience and subtlety to bring it off."
There are, however, other sentiments and memories about the career of John Dimitri Negroponte. And they are assuredly of a rawer nature. Old stories about a Honduran death squad. Tales about mischief with military generals and rogue CIA operatives.
When Negroponte strode into a Senate room for his confirmation hearings two months ago, he was a jaunty figure, tall, swinging an umbrella with such insouciance that it seemed to have turned into a walking stick. He'd seen this scene before, of course, necks yanking toward his arrival, the long mahogany table before him, the microphone, the glass of water, the senators seen chest-high, all of it lit up by the TV lights.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee -- his hair ice cream white with the lights pouring down on him -- referred to the posting to Iraq as "one of the most consequential ambassadorships in American history." Negroponte, in blue pinstripes, nodded. He read from his statement. "With our help, the people of Iraq can overcome the trauma of Saddam's brutality and the intimidation of violent extremists seeking to derail the progress they have made so far."
Back and forth it went, words of praise and encouragement. Then a bearded man popped up, jack-in-the-box-like, and began shouting at the seated senators: "Ask him about his involvement with a death squad in Honduras that he supported!" Heads swiveled, shoulders twisted. "What about death squad 316, Mr. Negroponte?" The man was Andres Thomas Conteris, a human rights activist who spent five years in Honduras. Security officers escorted him out. Negroponte didn't flinch during the outburst, didn't even turn around to eyeball his critic. Those who've known him for years -- family and friends, fellow ambassadors -- have long attested to his cool demeanor.
"There are two streams of analysis about John Negroponte," says Larry Birns, who, as director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a human rights group, has tried, unsuccessfully, to derail Negroponte's career over the years. "One is that he is a distinguished career diplomatic officer. The other is that he is a rogue, a jackanape, a bounder of the worst type."
'John Was a Winner. . . . You Just Felt That'
He was born in London on July 21, 1939. His father, Dimitri John Negroponte, was a shipping magnate. His mother, Catherine, "was one of the most beautiful women in all of Greece, blond, blue-eyed," says Anthony Lykiardopoulos, a cousin of Negroponte's who grew up with him in Manhattan. (The shipping business brought the Negropontes to America following World War II. )
Dimitri Negroponte was proud to be in America. He taught his children about life, leisure, the need to make a commitment to something. "His dad taught him how to eat, how to ski, how to be a good athlete," Lykiardopoulos says of John. "His dad would have made a sensational diplomat."
Having money meant the elder Negroponte had choices for his children. John Negroponte was sent to grade school at the tony Buckley School in Manhattan. His classmates there called him "Ponte." His intelligence impressed them mightily. "At that age," recalls Robert Harrison, a classmate at Buckley, "you can see the intelligence of someone. It hasn't got the varnish of pretension yet."
After Buckley, Negroponte went off -- like Harrison -- to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. There he joined the debating society, he played varsity soccer, he golfed, he swam, he took a prize in French. Even amid the keen young minds of Exeter, Negroponte stood out. He seemed to walk ahead of most everyone, invading the open air around him.
"Our family was very international," says Nick Negroponte, John's younger brother. "At the dinner table when people spoke, it was rare they would keep their sentence in one language. Our father spoke at least five languages fluently. John has his genes."
One of the things that made his cousin stand out, says Lykiardopoulos, was a sense of discretion, a feeling that one must handle problems privately. He recalls an outing to the beach when they were teens, and John suffered a case of sunstroke. Lykiardopoulos started making phone calls, inquiring about medical assistance. Negroponte told his cousin all he needed was sleep, but Lykiardopoulos wasn't so sure. He called Negroponte's mother. "He said, 'You've called my mother!' He was angered that someone thought he might not be able to take care of himself."
Exeter boys often had wide choices in their selection of college. Many would simply step, in their buck shoes, onto the campus of one of the Ivies. Robert Harrison chose Harvard. Negroponte chose Yale. He had shared with friends that he was interested in law. Beneath his picture in the Exeter yearbook, he contemplated -- "certainly in jest," says Harrison -- another possibility:
A Knack for Foreign Cultures
Yale was a quiet place in the mid- and late '50s. The Korean conflict had ended. But Cold War passions hummed like bumblebees in the air overhead.
"Communism was a part of our lexicon," says Denis Turko, a Negroponte roommate at Yale. "Khrushchev had spoken at the U.N. and said that the Russians were going to bury everyone. We talked about that -- and Sputnik and U2."
There were, of course, less severe pursuits. Turko remembers Negroponte -- "who was a really good poker player" -- coming into their dorm suite late one night. He had been out playing poker, had lost, needed to borrow some money. "I told him I had just gotten my tax refund check back," remembers Turko. "Well, he convinced me to sign it over to him. He went back out to play poker. The next day I said, 'How much did we win?' He said, 'We didn't, we lost.' John had to call his father to bail him out. I don't think he was too happy about that."
"He was genial and affable," recalls Jonathan Blake, another Negroponte roommate at Yale. "He was also more mature than most kids in college." Negroponte grew a coterie of friends and acquaintances and Blake attributed it to his background: "He was smooth and polished and had come from this continental background." Negroponte had a propensity for reaching out to other students, especially those from foreign cultures, engaging them in conversation, asking questions. "It was an outstanding trait."
Negroponte took the exams for the Foreign Service and, though he was told he had passed, went off to Harvard Law School -- a simple hop and skip in his intellectual world. "I only went there because of the uncertainty of when I'd be offered a job in the Foreign Service," Negroponte recalls in a telephone interview from his office in New York. While at Harvard, he received the notice to report from the State Department. He was beyond giddy. "I went running over to the dean's office to say I'd like to withdraw from law school. I think I was even able to get a little kind of refund back."
Fast Start, Then Exile
His first posting was Hong Kong.
The young foreign service officers there at that time were mainly China watchers, meaning they talked to refugees. China was still closed and America was interested in gleaning information any way it could. Stanley Karnow, a young journalist then working in Hong Kong, remembers Negroponte's arrival. "He came in there, a kind of classy guy. Very amiable. You know, hanging around. He quickly became one of the cast of characters."
Negroponte's superiors were impressed with him. By 1964 he had a new posting. Not many Americans knew much about the place: Saigon.
If you were young, with untested legs, and imagined a long foreign service career, and had read enormously about communism, then South Vietnam was a place to be in the early 1960s, a place where a young diplomat might come face to face with intrigue, adventure, chaos. Negroponte whizzed through foreign language training. In time, "he could sing in Vietnamese," recalls his brother Nick. "He could tell jokes in Vietnamese. I thought that was stunning."
The U.S. Embassy was an incubator for testing policy. "You had a whole slew of these young guys in Vietnam at the embassy," recalls Karnow, who would come to write a classic chronicle of Vietnam. "Richard Holbrooke, Tony Lake and Negroponte. It was a kind of crucible. They were a very keen group of guys."
"He was less flashy than some of the others," Kissinger recalls of the young Negroponte. "Very reliable."
A political liaison officer, Negroponte read everything he could. He went off into the countryside to meet and talk with the Vietnamese. He became the resident American expert on the Vietnamese constitutional assembly.
Young foreign service officers received plenty of dinner invitations in Vietnam. One evening, Sir Peter Wilkinson, the British ambassador, was hosting an affair for his visiting niece, Diana. "He gives a dinner for me on the last night of my visit in 1968," she recalls. "He had invited eligible bachelors, one of whom was John Negroponte, who explained the constitutional assembly throughout the whole meal! I was terrified -- and bored. Terrified that he might ask me something I didn't know the answer to, and bored because I was just an 18-year-old."
Still, she found herself impressed with the "power" she envisioned was represented by the young foreign service officer.
"The next day he's on the same Pan Am flight I am, going to Paris," recalls Diana. "When I got out 19 hours later in Paris, I was heads over heels in love with this guy. And he had not talked one minute about the constitutional assembly."
By the early 1970s, Negroponte was at the Paris peace talks, shuttling between the U.S. and North Vietnamese delegations. The North Vietnamese had won a concession that concerned Negroponte: They would be able to keep some troops in the South after the withdrawal. He expressed his misgivings to Kissinger, challenging him, which many considered unwise. "I think that was the decisive event in his life," says Holbrooke of Negroponte's stance. "He felt Kissinger had abandoned the people of South Vietnam. He stood up to Kissinger."
Negroponte's brother, Nick, came to visit him in Paris during the peace talks. He was amazed at Negroponte's demeanor: "I was fascinated. The French students were having their uprisings. But you can't rattle John. John does not rattle."
Many in the diplomatic corps wondered if Negroponte would pay for his challenge to Kissinger. "It was a very gutsy thing to do," says Karnow. "Negroponte was smart in saying that once the North Vietnamese troops stay in South Vietnam, it'd be like a death warrant for the South Vietnamese."
"It was a career-defining experience," Negroponte says of Vietnam. "Vietnam exposed me to a lot of things. The press, high-level government officials." He goes on: "I also look back on that experience with some sadness and regret with what happened to many brave Americans and Vietnamese people who lost their lives -- or were misplaced. These situations have ramifications over a long period of time. Lo and behold, years later, there were boat people fleeing Vietnam."
Negroponte's next posting was in Quito, Ecuador. "Kissinger exiled him," believes Holbrooke. Kissinger disputes that sentiment. "There has never been a personal rift between me and John," he says.
After Ecuador, Negroponte went to Thessaloniki, Greece. These were not the movements of a diplomat for whom high-level officials have high hopes. He remained in Greece for two years. "John," says Holbrooke, "speaks Greek fluidly, but still, it was exile."
Hardly anyone heard Negroponte complain, however. "John is a very resilient person," says Holbrooke, "and a skilled diplomat."
It was Holbrooke who, as assistant secretary of state under President Carter in 1980, pulled Negroponte back onto the visible diplomatic stage, appointing him deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
Within a year, Negroponte had another promotion, his first full ambassadorship. He was off to become our man in Honduras.
Scandal in Honduras
In the early 1980s, Central America was rife with rebellion, gun-running, and a perception that communism was on the move. The specter of Soviet-influenced muscle spreading from Nicaragua, where a Soviet-supported government was in place, to Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere alarmed many. American military aid to the region ballooned.
Nicaragua's Sandinista government rattled the Reagan administration to the point that it backed an anti-government guerrilla movement known as the contras against the wishes of Congress. CIA operatives and military officials began using neighboring Honduras as a base for the contras right around the time the new U.S. ambassador was taking up his post. The fighting in Nicaragua alone accounted for 50,000 casualties. And while Honduras wasn't as big a battleground as some other parts of the region, it hardly escaped bloodletting: Nearly 200 would end up missing -- dissidents and human rights activists, church leaders and critics of the Honduran military.
The Iran-contra scandal -- the selling of arms to Iran in exchange for money to circumvent Congress and keep funding the contra wars -- was an embarrassing moment for the Reagan administration. There were indictments, convictions, jail terms -- as well as presidential pardons for some.
Negroponte would become one of those incendiary figures -- like Oliver North or Elliot Abrams, both linked to the scandal -- whose name human rights campaigners summon when recalling the deeds done in Central America during the 1980s.
Rumors about human rights abuses centered on Battalion 316, a death squad headed by one Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief of the national police force, that eliminated contra opponents. Some American politicians traveled to Honduras to investigate, including Tom Harkin, then a Democratic congressman from Iowa, who thought that Alvarez and Negroponte were too cozy for the ambassador not to know what had been going on with the death squads.
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