Tough Job

For John Negroponte, getting confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq wil be the (only) easy part.

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Senate confirmation hearings began Tuesday for John Negroponte, the Bush administration’s choice for its first American ambassador in postwar Iraq. It is expected that his confirmation will come easily, unlike his bid, in 2001, for the job of top ambassador to the U.N., the post he holds now. Then, his confirmation was held up for 6 months when questions arose over allegations that as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s he overlooked human rights abuses. This time should be easier — Negroponte comes armed with the blessings of Colin Powell and the U.N., which makes him shoo-in for the job. But that’s no guarantee he will have success.

Negroponte has a long history in the business of international diplomacy, which gives him the resume to be the lead U.S. official in Iraq, following the June 30 handover of power to Iraqis. He has over 40 years of government service, having served as ambassador to the Philippines, Mexico, and, currently, at the U.N. He also speaks Vietnamese, French, Spanish, and Greek (though, awkwardly, given his new assignment, not Arabic).

It’s Negroponte’s time as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 that is the most controversial. He has been accused of covering up human rights abuses by death squads to Congress in order to keep the money flowing to aid U.S.-backed Contras.

Negroponte denies — much evidence to the contrary — that there were deliberate, organized human rights abuses during his tenure in Honduras. During his 2001 confirmation he stated, “I do not believe then, nor do I believe now, that these abuses were part of a deliberate government policy. To this day, I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras.”

ButDavid Corn notes in The Nation that a 1997 CIA Inspector General investigation said, “The Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned” and linked to “death squad activities.”

Corn also points to a 1995 Baltimore Sun series suggesting that Negroponte knew of and condoned the abuses: “A comparison of the annual human rights reports prepared while Negroponte was ambassador with the facts as they were then known shows that Congress was deliberately misled.” The Sun reported, “Time and again … Negroponte was confronted with evidence that a Honduran army intelligence unit, trained by the CIA, was stalking, kidnapping, torturing and killing suspected subversives.”

Corn writes: “…his tour of duty there [in Honduras] is worth scrutiny, for it raises questions about his credibility and his ability to handle tough situations and inconvenient truths.”

In his hearings to become ambassador of U.N., questions about this period of Negroponte’s history made him an odd choice for many in Congress. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut suggested 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.”

Critics argue that Sept. 11 fast-tracked his nomination; the Senate wanted a delegate to the U.N. as soon as possible.

This time around, Congress is expected to focus less on Negroponte’s past and more on the positive face he will provide as a diplomatic nominee. Many Democrats have indicated that they will not question Negroponte about his record in Central America. When asked about the appointment this time, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd said, “It’s critically important that we get an ambassador there.”

The Wall Street Journal suggests that Negroponte will have no problem winning the appointment because:

“Mr. Negroponte was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s candidate — one reason his confirmation seems guaranteed. Officials say the White House agreed that his selection would send a clear message that the U.S. now is eager to share the Iraq burden with the U.N. and other partners.”

Indeed, many foreign officials have given their approval to Negroponte. Russia’s acting U.N. ambassador said: “I respect him as a professional and he’s quite an experienced diplomat.”
Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, the current Security Council president, said, “I think he is certainly the right person for this very difficult and also dangerous job.” Algeria’s U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Baali, the only Arab member of the Security Council, said Negroponte “has a great quality, which is to listen to other people, and I think that will help him a lot in his very, very difficult mission in Iraq.”

Negroponte was praised last year for winning unanimous approval for a Security Council Resolution 1441, which demanded that Saddam Hussein comply with U.N. mandates to disarm, one of the only diplomatic moves led by the U.S. on the way to war in Iraq.

On the other hand, Negroponte’s tenure has coincided with a steep decline in U.S.-U.N. relations. Peter Ogden of The American Progress writes:

“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.”

The job will not be easy. Negroponte, if confirmed, will head the largest U.S. embassy, with 1000 American and 700 Iraqi employees.

And although Negroponte has an impressive diplomatic resume, he has never worked in the Middle East before. Ogden suggests that this could cause him problems, as it has Paul Bremer:

“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.”

There is also a question over how much power Negroponte will really have. He’ll find himself caught in a power struggle between the Pentagon, currently in charge of Iraq, and the State Department, which will inherit its mess.

The State Department already has plans for the region. For instance, when the Coalition Provisional Authority packs up on June 30, the State Department has plans to move the most visible U.S. offices, including the ambassador’s, out of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace into a smaller palace about a mile away. The goal is to make the U.S. presence appear less imperial.

Negroponte will also have control over the multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. But according to the Wall Street Journal, Wolfowitz has taken an interest in the program, and some in the State department are worried that the Defense Department will continue to exert control. The Wall Street Journal:

“Much of Mr. Negroponte’s ability to influence a new Iraqi government will depend on Iraqis’ belief that he is the one in charge of the money.

It isn’t clear how much backing Mr. Negroponte can count on once he is in the field. A favorite in the Reagan White House, he is seen in this administration as too closely linked to Mr. Powell to make it into the inner circle. What he does have going for him, officials say privately, is a growing sense in the White House that the Pentagon badly mismanaged the postwar effort.”


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