Negroponte at Large, Part V

In the last installment, we talked about President Reagan. Now I ask, “What about George W. Bush?”

The first thing Negroponte says is that Bush gave him “four extraordinary opportunities,” four extraordinary positions. “It was amazing, and I was honored to do it.” Those jobs, again, were U.N. ambassador, Iraq ambassador, DNI (director of national intelligence — Negroponte was the first ever), and deputy secretary of state.

Negroponte continues, “I got to know him [Bush] pretty darn well — not intimately, but pretty darn well — as director of national intelligence, because I saw him every day for a half hour, like clockwork. I saw him six days a week, Monday through Saturday. He got his intelligence briefing, and he took his briefing very seriously. I started in 2005, so he had already been president for more than four years. He knew the international brief cold. It was kind of hard to tell Mr. Bush much that he didn’t know. He was a good study.

“He knew all these leaders very well — he placed a great deal of value on his personal relationships, just like his father. This was something that he had in common with his father. So he had a lot of personal insights into all these people: Hu Jintao, Putin, all these Latin Americans, Europeans — everybody. After all, what do these presidents do in their international relations? Well, a certain amount of it is attending international conferences, whether it’s the G-8 or the NATO summit or the APEC meeting. If you look at their actual agendas, they get a lot of exposure” to the various leaders.

Bush “was very on top of foreign affairs and national-security issues. He was very easy to work with — very transparent. What you saw was what you got. He himself acknowledged that he wasn’t as good with words as might have been.” And one thing this problem did was “mask a great intelligence.” Bush is “a very smart man.”

Thinking about historical reputation, Negroponte says, “I think the jury is still out on Iraq, and it could end up being more of a pleasant surprise than many people expect right now.” Also, Bush made “real advances in the U.S.-PRC relationship.” He made it “very strong.” And “I think he pushed the free-trade agenda very effectively as well, although we unfortunately didn’t get the Colombia agreement.”

No fault of the Bush administration’s, I might add. And now that Barack Obama is president: The Colombians are well and truly . . . um, not advantaged. Countries pay a great, great price for having been a stalwart ally of the United States and freedom generally. (Sorry for my own editorial intrusion.)

I ask a question a bit off the wall: “Do you have a view of global warming?” I ask it because, in the mid-1980s, Negroponte was assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Negroponte says, “I think it’s real” — global warming, that is. “I do have an issue with how you go about it” — how you go about handling these big environmental matters.

It was Negroponte’s office that negotiated the Montreal Protocol, which dealt with the protection of the ozone layer. Negroponte’s deputy, Richard Benedict, was the chief driver of this; Negroponte did some driving, too. “There were a lot of naysayers in the administration,” he says — people who doubted that certain substances damaged the ozone layer. “Some of these people didn’t believe the science. I believed the science.

“But I find, if you’re going to deal with these issues, you have to deal with them discretely. You can’t try to be too sweeping. One of my philosophical beefs with the environmental community generally is, when they see an issue, they immediately want to take a total global approach to it. They throw in everything but the kitchen sink; they try to solve everything all at once. I would say, if you want to deal with the greenhouse-gas issue, you could have done it 25 years ago. You could have done something about preserving tropical forests. You take individual components” of the world’s environment, rather than trying to go whole-hog and messianic.

Negroponte says that he has two role models, where diplomacy is concerned. And they were “almost antithetical,” in background and temperament. The first is Ellsworth Bunker (1894-1984). Scion of a wealthy family, scion of Yale. He was the epitome of the gentleman diplomat (American version). Bunker was ambassador to India, the OAS, and, critically, South Vietnam.

“He kept his cool,” says Negroponte, “in 100-degree Saigon heat. He was just calm, gentlemanly, and dignified — always.”

he second model is Philip Habib (1920-1992). He was the son of Lebanese Christians in Brooklyn — “I think his father ran a delicatessen,” says Negroponte. Somehow, Habib went to college at the forestry school of the University of Idaho. As a diplomat, he was high-strung, somewhat fiery — but superb. “Phil was a mentor to a lot of us,” says Negroponte. “He was Mr. Foreign Service in his time. He also demonstrated that, with competence, efficiency, and presentational skills, you could be influential in policy circles, as a career person. He proved that.”

And he was famous for his appetite for work. “He’d call you up at 11 at night, and you’d say, ‘Phil, it’s 11. I have to get some rest.’ And he’d say, ‘I’ve always told you there are 24 hours in every day.’”

I ask Negroponte to name someone who has made a particular impression on him, in his work around the world. Not necessarily someone famous. Just someone. He names a national leader: Fidel Ramos. Ramos was president of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998. “He probably impressed me as much as any leader I’ve ever had the opportunity to deal with,” says Negroponte. “He was almost bicultural. He had an affinity for the United States, while still being very Filipino.” Ramos went to West Point, and obtained a masters degree in engineering from the University of Illinois. He fought in both Korea and Vietnam — in Philippine units.

“He stood head and shoulders above any political leader who had preceded him,” says Negroponte, “and, actually, that was sort of the high point of Philippine political and economic development. Hopefully, they can get that back.” Ramos “really rolled up his sleeves and got stuff done” — for example, during a terrible “brownout” crisis.

A leader on the current scene? Uribe of Colombia. “He is probably the most impressive leader I know,” particularly in light of this: “You have to judge a leader in relation to the challenges he faces, the odds.” Colombia has extraordinary challenges, very long odds. And what Uribe has done is “really nothing short of amazing.”

Uribe, says Negroponte, has these qualities: “persistence, clarity, integrity, hard work.” And “these are the things that characterize great leaders, usually. Enormous energy. Enormous focus. Don’t underestimate energy and health as really critical factors in these things — they make a difference. You wonder how Roosevelt did what he did being as sick as he was, toward the end of his life. He must have had huge willpower.”

Negroponte has held many posts (detailed in Part I of this series). (Detailed in part, I should say.) Which one did he enjoy the most? “I enjoyed many of them, but, to be honest, I think I enjoyed being ambassador to Mexico the most.” The job “combined the satisfaction of being in a highly interesting and pleasant country with the satisfaction of working on a really important substantive agenda.” For example, Negroponte was a negotiator of NAFTA. But on the personal side: “We loved the country. I traveled all over with the family — visited all but one of the 30-some states, I think.”

The most difficult of all his posts? “I tend to gravitate toward the tough assignments,” Negroponte says. “But I think probably the hardest was to be director for Vietnam on the National Security Council staff under Kissinger.” The hours. The travel. And, of course, the absolutely brutal subject matter.

Negroponte is now out of government. He has been out of government before. From 1960, when he graduated from college, until 1997, he was in the Foreign Service. Then, till the second Bush came in, he did some private-sector work: at McGraw-Hill, the publisher. And now, as I mentioned earlier, he is a partner in McLarty Associates. He will also begin teaching at Yale.

But I hope Negroponte is not through with government posts altogether. The world is a dangerous place, as another former U.N. ambassador famously said, and, as long as it is, free countries can use such people as Negroponte. So can unfree countries. Maybe another Republican president will come along, and beckon Negroponte. Then again, a Democrat would be well served, too.