Magazine March 23, 2009, Issue

Negroponte Talks

A capable man for a dangerous world

‘I don’t know if you know my reputation, but I was never a good source,” says John Negroponte — a good source for journalists, that is. I do know his reputation. A longtime diplomat, entrusted with many crucial posts, he has always been tightlipped with the Fourth Estate. But now he is in the private sector, and in a better position to talk. Obviously, he has plenty to offer.

Here he is on Iran and nukes (and remember that, only two years ago, he was director of national intelligence): “I think that’s what they want, I think that’s what they’re headed towards, I think that’s what they’re going to get.” Shortly after he became DNI in 2005, his office estimated that Iran would have a weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015. “I don’t believe that that assessment has essentially changed,” says Negroponte.

But don’t we have the means to stop the Iranians? “I think we can delay them through sanctions, through import restrictions, through working with other countries. But definitively stop them? Even if you used coercive means, I think it would be quite difficult by now.” In 1981, Israel took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor, ending Iraq’s nuclear program for some time. Iran is a different story, however: Its nuclear facilities are likely to be many and dispersed. “Iran is a big country with a substantial scientific community,” says Negroponte, and the country “has aspired to nuclear capability since the time of the shah.”

Refresh yourself on Negroponte’s career: He was the top aide to Kissinger for Vietnam. He was ambassador in Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines. He was assistant secretary of state and deputy national security adviser. (This was under Reagan.) Later he was U.N. ambassador, ambassador in Iraq, DNI (the first ever), and deputy secretary of state. The last four posts were under George W. Bush. Negroponte is one of those who have been everywhere, known everybody, done everything.

He now works for McLarty Associates, a consulting firm in Washington — the McLarty being Mack McLarty, President Clinton’s first chief of staff (and a man — another man — from Hope, Ark.). Negroponte’s office contains some photos — just a few — from his far-flung career: There he is as a young man with Chou En-lai, for example. You will find Negroponte a very tall, large, imposing man, with a striking bald head: He looks like a figure on a classical coin.

He was born in 1939, to Greek parents. And he had an elite education: the Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale. Negroponte majored in political science, and spent his junior year abroad — at the “Sciences Po” in Paris. On the Yale campus itself, one of his teachers was Willmoore Kendall, the notorious political philosopher, and an early figure in National Review. One day, Kendall handed back some assignment to him, saying, “Negroponte, I’ve given only one better grade in this course, in all the years I’ve been teaching it, and that was to William F. Buckley.”

When coming of age, Negroponte admired Franklin Roosevelt, enormously. He also admired Truman — particularly for his decisiveness. Negroponte joined the Foreign Service just before the 1960 election. “And if they hadn’t lost my absentee ballot somewhere in the bowels of the State Department, I would have voted for Kennedy. I considered myself a Democrat until Ronald Reagan came along, and then I switched political affiliation.” That was true of millions of Americans. But Negroponte was never a partisan: As a professional diplomat, he thought he had no right to be.

Of his time with Kissinger, working on the Vietnam War, he will not speak. But there have been many published reports about this experience. They say that Negroponte was appalled at what the United States was doing: in effect, selling out the South — piddling away a war that was, in fact, winnable. Negroponte broke sharply with Kissinger. And, from a prized and exalted perch, he went to a relative backwater: Quito, Ecuador. But there began a significant Latin American career.

In 1981, Negroponte became ambassador to Honduras. His critics — belonging to the Dodd/Kerry school — say that he was a conductor of the Reagan administration’s “dirty wars.” His supporters say that he was part of the team that beat back extreme Left and extreme Right to foster democratization in the region. Negroponte remembers the charge that Tip O’Neill made: that Reagan would not be happy until there were U.S. troops in Central America. But the opposite was true. “That’s why we did the covert stuff that we did.”

Today, democracy looks shaky in Latin America, with the rise of Chávez and others. But Negroponte points out that “we’re a hell of a lot better off than we were 30 years ago.” Mexico is not a one-party state anymore, and Colombia is “a fabulous success story,” despite severe challenges. Latin American democracy is doing well enough, says Negroponte. The problem is, it is not yet consolidated: A struggle is going on whose outcome we cannot yet see.

And he says something interesting about President Bush and Chávez: “I think one of the great things Mr. Bush did was not give Hugo Chávez the satisfaction of reacting to his various provocations. My sense is that that bothered Chávez. I don’t think Mr. Bush ever mentioned his name, frankly” — and that was an appropriate approach.

Negroponte went to the U.N. in 2001. And it was in February 2003 that Secretary of State Colin Powell made his fateful presentation on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Negroponte, the ambassador, was sitting right behind him. He says, “We all believed there were WMD. There was no effort to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes, as far as I’m aware.” Powell, Negroponte, and CIA director George Tenet had gone over the evidence with a fine-toothed comb the night before. Powell “made a good-faith effort,” says Negroponte, but U.S. claims “turned out to be wrong, so there we are.”

So, I ask, were we right to invade Iraq? “Look,” he says: “I’m very much the realist and the pragmatist. I was not party to the decision, but I saw it coming, and when we went in, and after we’d been there a while, I felt, ‘We have to deal with the situation as it is. We’ve done it, and we have to make the best of it.’ And I ended up making a personal contribution — volunteered to go.”

As ambassador, that is. Today he is encouraged by what is happening in Iraq. “I hope it doesn’t fall apart once we leave, but it sure is a lot better than people expected a couple of years ago. We were all holding our heads in February ’06 after the bombing of the Samarra mosque. That was terrible. The sectarian violence in Baghdad that ensued was just — tragic. And alarming. Somehow we weathered that,” and Iraq actually has a chance to pull it off: to establish a democracy, of some sort, in the heart of the Middle East.

We discuss presidents he has known and worked with, including George W. Bush — whom he saw regularly. “He took his briefing” — which is to say, his intelligence briefing — “very seriously.” When Negroponte started as DNI, Bush “had already been president for more than four years, and he knew the international brief cold. It was kind of hard to tell Mr. Bush much that he didn’t know. He was a good study. He knew all these leaders very well — he placed a great deal of value on his personal relationships, just like his father.” That is something that 43 had in common with 41, Negroponte notes.

Bush himself acknowledged that “he wasn’t as good with words as he might have been,” Negroponte continues. And one thing this problem did was “mask a great intelligence.” He is “a very smart man.”

Negroponte has a couple of role models in the diplomatic field, and they were polar opposites, temperamentally: Ellsworth Bunker, so calm, gentlemanly, and dignified; and Philip Habib, high-strung but superb. Talking about national leaders, he cites one who made a particular impression on him: Pres. Fidel Ramos of the Philippines (mid-’90s). “He rolled up his sleeves and got stuff done.” A leader on today’s scene? Álvaro Uribe of Colombia. What he has done is “really nothing short of amazing.”

Negroponte says that probably the hardest post he has ever held was director for Vietnam on the National Security Council staff. That was even harder than the Iraq ambassadorship. I allow that, on a trip to Iraq last fall, I found it difficult not to think about Vietnam: particularly its bitter and horrendous aftermath. “Well, that’s my nightmare,” says Negroponte: “that we get out too quickly and sort of preemptively give up.”

He is a pragmatist, yes, as he has said: but he is certainly not without ideals. He talks about freedom without blushing. Also, he knows that the world is a dangerous place (as another former U.N. ambassador famously said). As long as this is so, we could use men such as Negroponte in crucial posts.

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