Ambassador With Big Portfolio
John Negroponte Goes to Baghdad With A Record of Competence, and
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.
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)
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
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." ...
Sr. Rodimiro Zelaya y Sra. Diana NegroPonte Donación del terreno
Centro de Cáncer.
Colaboradores Asociación Hondureña Contra el Cáncer
Está página es en agradecimiento a todos aquellos que creen
y apoyan nuestra labor. Seguiremos adelante con el mismo entusiasmo de siempre
ayudando y dedicando todo nuestro esfuerzo en favor de la lucha contra el
Young foreign service officers received plenty of dinner invitations in Vietnam.
One evening, Sir Peter Wilkinson, the British ambassador, was hosting an
affair for his visiting niece, Diana. "He gives a dinner for me on the last
night of my visit in 1968," she recalls. "He had invited eligible bachelors,
one of whom was John Negroponte, who explained the constitutional assembly
throughout the whole meal! I was terrified -- and bored. Terrified that he
might ask me something I didn't know the answer to, and bored because I was
just an 18-year-old."
Still, she found herself impressed with the "power" she envisioned was
represented by the young foreign service officer.
"The next day he's on the same Pan Am flight I am, going to Paris," recalls
Diana. "When I got out 19 hours later in Paris, I was heads over heels in
love with this guy. And he had not talked one minute about the constitutional
Diana's father was Sir Charles Villiers, a merchant banker who would rise
to become chairman of British Steel. Villiers had a powerful social conscience.
In his youth, he went to work for Tubby Clayton, a cleric who tended to the
poor. The activism spilled over to his daughter. "He represented social justice
for the unemployed man and their families," says Diana Negroponte. "That,
along with my mother's work as a social worker in the East End of London,
were elements I grew up with."
She and Negroponte met again in 1976, years after their original meeting.
"I met his mother at a wedding in London," Diana says. "I asked her, 'How
is your son doing?' She groans. John was 36 and unmarried. Mother got to
work and mother pulled it off. Six months later we were married."
Wherever they went, he'd do the political thing, and she'd hustle off to
the barrios, the slums, the tough places. "She was a one-woman Peace Corps,"
says Stanley Karnow. "I was down in Honduras once. She was out in the refugee
camps and she came back to the capital all covered with chiggers. She's
Parents went missing during the contra war. Babies appeared on the sides
of roads, in shacks, alone.
A Honduran nun told Diana Negroponte about a baby girl that had been found
abandoned. The baby had been covered with ants, with worms. The nun asked
Diana if she knew someone who might want to adopt the child. She did: her
and her husband, Ambassador Negroponte. They adopted the child, and were
hardly finished. Another child was found, and they adopted that one as well.
Over the years, five Honduran children would be adopted by the Negropontes
-- Marina, now 22, Alejandra, now 20, John, now 16, George, now 14, and Sophia,
The revelations about Battalion 316 had yet to surface and many Hondurans
were wildly taken with the Negropontes. "She did more for diplomatic relations
by adopting those children than anyone in the world," says her brother-in-law,
Nick. "John and Diana turned the American residence into a nursery. The special
forces troops there became sort of like nannies."