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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
After a four-decade career in diplomacy that included tours in Vietnam and Honduras, John Negroponte is Washington's ambassador to Iraq. "It's going to be difficult," he says. "There are many challenges to face."
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)