Negroponte at Large, Part II

Negroponte took the Foreign Service exam in December 1959, and passed it. He did the oral exam in July 1960, right after he graduated from college. In those days, they told you right away whether you had gotten in — and Negroponte was accepted. He said, in effect, “Great, when do I start?” They said they didn’t know — could take a year or two. He said, “Well, I’ve already been accepted at law school. I think I’ll start, and see what happens.”

He began his year at Harvard Law. And one week in, “I get a telegram — in those days you got telegrams — saying, ‘You’re hereby invited to join the Foreign Service, and you will report on October 5.’ Well, I was delirious with joy. Those big law books were very intimidating. So I went to see the dean,” Erwin Griswold, “and said, ‘Mr. Griswold, I’ve been invited to join the Foreign Service, and I think I would like to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, young man, you’ve arrived in time to get your tuition back.’ I beat the deadline. Presumably, they gave my slot to somebody else.”

Negroponte says, “I have no real regrets about leaving law school and joining the Foreign Service. When I had the downs — you always have ups and downs — I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should have done something else . . .’”

I say, “Ambassador, I think you would have been bored stiff by law school and some legal career.” He does not accept this. “I don’t know,” he says.

When he was coming of age, Negroponte admired Franklin Roosevelt, “enormously.” He also admired Truman — particularly for his decisiveness. As you have seen, 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. “I frankly didn’t really identify myself as anything in particular, because I considered myself a career diplomat. Go back to Cecil Driver, and his basic course in political science,” which was heavy on the British system. “The British civil servant doesn’t play politics. So he kind of groomed us to think that way.”

Negroponte volunteers something about Eisenhower: “In retrospect, I admire him greatly. I realize now what an incredibly idyllic period we lived in — not because I’m nostalgic for my teenage years. He really did keep us out of war. Dulles was not the warmonger the media hyped him up to be. I was in Paris in 1958, and they whipped up this extreme dislike of Dulles.” In truth, “they were moderate and farsighted,” the Eisenhower people.

I mention that there was a lot of opposition to Eisenhower from the right — for instance, for not doing more for the Hungarians.

“I felt that way emotionally.” For an exam in Driver’s course, you had to answer a bunch of questions, and then write on some topic of your choice. “This was November or December of 1956. And I wrote asking why we hadn’t done more to help the Hungarians.”

Of his time with Kissinger, working on the Vietnam War, Negroponte 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. This was the beginning of Negroponte’s 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. Reagan was loath to commit troops there — he remembered what a deleterious effect that had, years before, when he was a young man. “That’s why we did the covert stuff that we did,” says Negroponte.

I ask him about Latin America today: Democracy looks shaky, with the rise of Chavez and others. Are our gains there being reversed? Negroponte says, “First of all, we’re a hell of a lot better off than we were 30 years ago.” At that time, the region was rife with military dictatorships. “I guess the most problematic state, besides Cuba, which is a basketcase of its own, is Venezuela.”

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

“Mexico is a very positive development,” says Negroponte: Not so long ago, they were a one-party state. “And Colombia is a fabulous success story — Uribe [the president] is totally impressive. The courage and transparency with which they’ve taken on their problems, in the face of a lot of criticism, is really an enormous feat of leadership.” Negroponte does worry about those who would turn their backs on Colombia: If Colombia goes south — if it goes the way of Venezuela — South America would be in very bad shape indeed.

In Negroponte’s view, an “inconclusive struggle” is going on — a “political struggle.” Democracy is doing “fine” in Latin America; but it has not yet “consolidated” itself. We will have to see.

I ask, “Should we be doing something in Cuba that we’re not now doing?” He answers, “God, what do you do? What do you do?” As it happens, Negroponte was asked that very question in the oral portion of his Foreign Service exam. This was (again) in July 1960, a year and a half after the Castroites took over. “I said, ‘I would reach out to them and use diplomacy. I would befriend these people, try the soft touch.’” The Foreign Service examiners dismissed Negroponte from the room. “And after 15, 20 minutes, they called me back and told me I had passed. But they had two observations to make: First, ‘For someone who says he wants to join the Foreign Service, we’re kind of surprised at how little you know about what we do.’ Then they said, ‘By the way, your ideas about Cuba? You’ll get over that.’”

“Did it prove true?” I ask. Yes, says Negroponte.

I have one more question about Latin America: Would Negroponte care to say something about President Arias’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Negroponte thinks for a while. Then says, “No” — and laughs heartily.

Talk then turns to the Philippines, where Negroponte was ambassador from 1993 to 1996. I say, “That’s a democratic success story, isn’t it?” He says, yes, absolutely. “They have problems,” and some severe ones. But they are far better off than they were before. “Marcos, of course, was a disaster for the country. But they came through that, and became more democratic than just about any other country in East Asia.”

Does it look like they’ll make it? “You never quite know. I think they have not yet fallen into a consistent pattern of political behavior. They certainly have a lot of assets: They have the English language. They got a lot of overseas workers sending back revenues. We left them a pretty good education system, but it’s a bit frayed around the edges now.

“But I don’t see why they can’t make it under good, consistent political leadership.” The Philippines, concludes Negroponte, “is a country that has yet to realize its potential.”

Talk then turns to the U.N., where Negroponte was ambassador from 2001 to 2004. He says, “I’m very positive about the U.N.” But you have to ascertain what people mean when they say “the U.N.”

“Sometimes, they really mean the secretary-general and the Secretariat. Sometimes they mean the Security Council. Sometimes they mean the different humanitarian programs, like UNICEF, the UNDP, the food program, and so on.

“The U.N. is what the members make of it. This is particularly true of the Security Council.” What Americans sometimes forget, Negroponte continues, is that “we almost always get our way in the Security Council. The veto power gives you an enormous amount of leverage.” Sure, we lose some, but we most often win. The Security Council “can be a force for good,” says Negroponte. “I think it has a place. I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all, but it has a contribution to make.

“Also, you mustn’t forget that U.N. Security Council resolutions are binding on the international community. So there are times when you can make some pretty interesting international law.” For example, you can ban certain groups — terrorist groups. You put them on lists, and people are prohibited from dealing financially with those groups. “These things can have a practical effect on the lives of people.”

Negroponte is also positive about peacekeeping: for example in Sierra Leone, where a blue-hat presence made a huge difference. “They didn’t do too bad a job in Liberia either.”

Now, of course, the “Human Rights Council” is “laughable” — “the inmates have gotten a hold of the prison.” (I think what Negroponte means to say is that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.) “I think we’re probably right to ignore it. But I think that the humanitarian agencies are very good. The food organization does good work, UNICEF — these are good agencies that do important things.”

Tomorrow, we’ll turn to Iraq, WMD, and other critical matters.