By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005
Richard H. Jones has been tasked with some of the trickiest jobs in U.S. diplomacy.
First posted in Paris, he had to sell Reaganomics to skeptical Europeans.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, he oversaw final destruction of the Soviet nuclear and biological weapons programs in Kazakhstan. One program employed scientists to destroy the biological plant where they had earlier produced anthrax bacteria.
In Saudi Arabia, he started a program that rescued -- and eventually resettled abroad -- thousands of Iraqi refugees after Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait in 1991.
As the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, he helped broker a cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon, while living under threat from the terrorist group Hezbollah. "One of my favorite headlines when I was in Lebanon was, 'Tensions Mount as Calls For Jones' Head Multiply,' " he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.
Jones was also top U.S. envoy in Kuwait when it was the staging post for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then he was sent to Baghdad as number two to U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer during the initial occupation.
"They always seem to send me to hot spots," Jones said in a recent interview.
Now, to cap his career, Jones has left his post as the State Department's chief coordinator for Iraq policy to become U.S. ambassador to Israel, arguably the most sensitive U.S. diplomatic posting in the Middle East over the past half-century.
"This is a man who was shaped and molded on the prairie and has distinguished himself . . . in some of the most difficult jobs that we've had in our government," said Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel at the July 27 confirmation hearings, noting Jones's roots in his own state of Nebraska.
Jones is an unusual choice for Israel. An Arabist by training, he knows none of the major politicians on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and has never been assigned to the issue, even in Washington.
His roots in the Arab world are so deep that his beloved greyhound is named Kisa -- for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the country of his first posting in the Arab world.
"Maybe they wanted someone who would take a fresh look. I come to the job without preconceptions," Jones reflected. "Maybe they wanted someone who could provide the Arab perspective, too. The stakes are not just the Israeli handover and disengagement from Gaza. The aftermath will take months, if not years, to play out."
Jones said he also likes to unravel puzzles -- of all kinds. One of his favorites is the word game "Jumble."
"I like to see how fast I can solve things," Jones mused.
A mathematician by training and inventor by hobby, Jones's ponderings over a construction issue in Saudi Arabia led to his first patent, No. 5,430,989. It looks like an adult version of Legos; its central piece is a hinge that makes lattice-work structures without tools. It could be used to make anything from a TV antenna tower to a temporary building, he said.
But Jones got the job in Tel Aviv because he deals well in conflict and crisis, U.S. officials say. "He is one of the most serious and most capable people in the Near East bureau, which has responsibility for Israel," said Martin Indyk, who headed that State Department office and was ambassador to Israel for both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Jones has a reputation as a seasoned facilitator who is good at using the personal touch, an essential part of Middle East diplomacy, colleagues say.
In Baghdad, one of his early assignments was to persuade the Kurds, who originally sought the Iraqi presidency, to participate in the first interim Iraqi government -- but in another role. The United States wanted to bring on board Barham Salih, the congenial British-educated prime minister of one of the two Kurdish provinces.
"I was initially reluctant to accept the offer, as it did not define the portfolio, and I was a bit concerned that I would end with a ceremonial, non-substantive position in the government," Salih recalled in an interview.
But Jones flew to northern Kurdistan and met Salih in the scenic mountainous region where Salih's wife came from. "We spent an evening at the shores of Dukan Lake discussing the forthcoming era. He was one of those who encouraged me to accept the offer and really helped me make up my mind to accept the new responsibility," recalled Salih, who said he was struck by Jones's knowledge of the region's political culture.
Since then, Jones and Salih have worked together to help ease the international divide over Iraq, particularly at the international conference in Brussels in June. "This was by far the most important international gathering in support of Iraq's political transition and helped move away from the divisions that plagued the international community on Iraq," Salih said.
He credited Jones, who Salih said traveled to many world capitals, with "ensuring the widest ever attendance, nearly 70 foreign ministers."
Jones has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's right-hand man on Iraq, and colleagues say his close relationship with her is another reason for his appointment. His office is just down the hall from hers.
Israel is the closest ally of the United States in the region and the largest recipient of its aid, and policy is often conducted directly out of Rice's office -- usually in quiet behind-the-scenes meetings or telephone calls with an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weisglass.
Jones's first mission in Israel, he told the Senate committee, will be to ensure the Gaza pullout is a success -- for both sides. To counter any suspicions about his perspective on Palestinian-Israeli tensions, Jones also said his primary focus will be "speaking to the Israeli people" and taking a tough stand on violence by Arab groups.
"The people calling for my head were Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, so I'm not shy on taking on terror organizations and calling a spade a spade," Jones said, referring to his time in Lebanon. "You can rest assured that I am adamantly opposed to violence in all forms, especially extremist and terrorist violence."
If Jones does not go back into inventing after his Israel tour of duty, Hagel suggested he has a political future. "Everybody in Omaha is carrying placards, 'Jones for President,' was the last I heard," said Hagel, who is widely considered to have his own presidential ambitions. "It shakes some of us to see that."