Richardson: A Daring Diplomat
By Eric Pianin
In choosing veteran Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President Clinton has opted for a practitioner of daredevil diplomacy more at ease plucking American prisoners from foreign trouble spots than debating the finer points of foreign policy.
The rumpled, good-natured Richardson will be the only member of the new Clinton foreign policy team who can boast that he has negotiated face-to-face with Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and high-ranking North Korean officials. Just last week the 49-year-old House Democratic leader flew to a primitive rebel outpost in the Sudan to arrange the release of three Red Cross workers.
Yesterday Clinton hailed Richardson as someone who not only can "give voice to America's interests and ideals around the world" but also can "act effectively." He added, "All Americans have watched admiringly as Bill Richardson has undertaken the toughest and most delicate diplomacy around the world, from North Korea to Iraq."
National security adviser Anthony Lake described Richardson as "energetic, honest and skillful" and adroit at "making it clear when he was acting on behalf of the administration and when he was acting on his own."
Recalling Richardson's work as a trouble-shooter, including his success in negotiating the release of a U.S. pilot shot down in North Korea in December 1994, Lake said that Richardson "has always made sure that any risks of failure were calculated risks."
Equally important to the White House, Richardson has been a strong supporter of Clinton's foreign and domestic programs and can be trusted to carry out administration policy during the stormy times ahead at the United Nations. Tensions are running high at the United Nations, where the United States has drawn criticism from other countries for dictating the choice of a new secretary general, for its refusal to pay some back dues and for its drive to impose major reforms.
"Bill's great asset is that he's very close to the president," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. "The president feels quite comfortable with him."
While other House Democratic leaders opposed U.S. ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Richardson, chief deputy Democratic whip, worked closely with Clinton to drum up support.
The liberal New Mexico Democrat also was a key player in passing Clinton's 1993 budget over unanimous GOP opposition and stood by the president early last year when other House Democrats criticized his decision to support a balanced budget.
However, Richardson and the White House have differed over U.S. policy toward Cuba, which likely will become an issue during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Last March, Richardson was one of 86 House members who voted against an amendment sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) tightening the trade embargo against Cuba after the Cubans shot down two unarmed planes. Although the White House endorsed the amendment, Richardson argued that the measure encroached on the president's prerogative to conduct foreign policy.
Marc Thiessen, spokesman for the Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that Richardson should not expect the confirmation to be "a rubber stamp," adding that Helms expected it to serve as an opportunity for the Clinton administration to "lay out a program of reform for the United Nations."
Helms wants Richardson's presentation to describe "what's wrong with the U.N., what needs to be fixed, and what Mr. Richardson intends to do if he gets up to New York," Thiessen said. "We expect him to come up here with a lot of detail."
Yesterday Richardson said that while the United States was the driving force behind the creation of the United Nations following World War II, "We have always been ambivalent about it. We support its goals and the principles upon which it is based, but we're jealous of our own prerogatives.
"This administration has sought to meld those attitudes, working hard to reform and strengthen the U.N. while making it clear that we would continue to rely on our own resources and alliances for the protection of our vital economic and security interests," he added.
To outgoing ambassador Madeleine K. Albright, Richardson jested: "I hope my shoes can fill your big heels."
Richardson's bicultural roots have been crucial to his success as an international trouble-shooter and give him added cachet as he assumes the role of a chief spokesman for U.S. foreign policy. Born in California, he grew up in Mexico City, where his father, a U.S. citizen, was an executive with Citibank. His mother, a Mexican, spoke to him in Spanish. An aide said Richardson "understands cultures and the politics of other countries and the need for everyone to save face."
A one-time staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a master's degree in diplomacy from Tufts University, Richardson began his political career in 1978 when he moved to New Mexico to become executive director of the state Democratic Party. He gained attention with a strong but unsuccessful 1980 challenge to an entrenched Republican House member, Manuel Lujan Jr., and two years later won election to a newly created district with a large Hispanic and American Indian population.
During the mid-1980s, Richardson was a leading opponent of aid to the contra rebels until he visited Nicaragua in 1985 and concluded that humanitarian assistance was needed. His first international foray in 1994 was to Burma, where he met with a Burmese dissident who had been under house arrest since 1989. Late that year, he negotiated the release of downed U.S. helicopter pilot Bobby Hall during a trip to North Korea to confer on nuclear disarmament. Elected last month to his eighth term, Richardson also has negotiated for the release of captives in Iraq and Bangladesh.
Republican officials said they are unlikely to be able to take Richardson's seat in the special election.
Staff writers Laura Blumenfeld and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company