This weekend, President George W. Bush promised John D. Negroponte ’60 some new office space. The address is 799 United Nations Plaza, the corner of 42nd Street and 1st Avenue in New York City, to be precise. And the view is stunning. Standing next to floor-to-ceiling windows of the conference room on the 12th floor, you can see virtually all of Brooklyn and Queens. Right below flows the East River, on the left spans the Queens Bridge and straight across stands the vintage white Pepsi Cola packaging plant.
Home of the United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations — the place where the likes of U.N. ambassadors Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright and George H.W. Bush once ran the show — the building at 799 United Nations Plaza is in a major state of transition. Now, 62-year-old career diplomat and Yale graduate Negroponte is tapped to take over the mission as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
When Bush won the White House, most senior diplomats simply packed up their stuff and left the mission while medium-level officials offered their formal resignations. There is nothing strange about this per se, as it happens with every White House transition. What is strange is the sense of uncertainty that had enveloped not only the mission but also the United Nations itself. Rumors spread through Washington and New York as Elizabeth Dole and Lee Hamilton were mentioned as possible nominees.
Two weeks ago, a group of Yale students met with Ambassador Cameron R. Hume, who was temporarily assigned to help run the mission. At that meeting, I asked him whether he had any idea whom Bush would appoint as the ambassador to the United Nations.
Hume said he was quite comfortable not knowing who is in the running. After I said that Ambassador Gerhard Pfanzelter at the Austrian mission across the street told the same group of Yale students that anxiety is building up among his colleagues in light of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s announced visit to the United Nations, Hume responded calmly, “I’ll find out about it in the news, just like you.”
Ending his discussion with the group, Hume did add a pearl of wisdom: “The coin of the game in politics is loyalty.” We all dismissed this comment as an often-said platitude about politics in general. But a week and a half after, Hume’s worlds resonate much stronger than they did that Friday afternoon.
If there is one thing that defines Negroponte as a diplomat and politician, it seems to be loyalty — for better or for worse. In the late 1980s Negroponte served as Deputy to Powell, who served as National Security Advisor to President George H.W. Bush. In addition, Negroponte has experience in key diplomatic posts, as an ambassador to Mexico, Honduras and the Philippines.
But the meaning of loyalty that characterizes Negroponte is not apparent until one considers that as an ambassador to Honduras between 1981 and 1985, Negroponte was deeply involved in implementing President Ronald Reagan’s covert war against the socialist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.
In 1989, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed confirming Negroponte as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. On May 4, The Washington Post reported that during his tenure as ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte delivered Reagan’s message to Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova that the United States would continue to provide “incentives” for the fight against the Sandinistas despite the ban from Congress.
Although his appointment was confirmed, Negroponte faced more criticism over his role in Honduras. In 1995, the Baltimore Sun conducted an investigation into the alleged U.S. support for the Honduran government, which in the early 1980s sponsored “death squads” responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering Hondurans. At the end of the investigation, the newspaper published two blazing editorials accusing Negroponte of lying to Congress in his testimony about human rights in Honduras in order to cover up U.S. government actions there.
Negroponte also appears trustworthy and discreet, especially when it comes to behind-the-scenes diplomacy. According to a 1993 New York Times article, Negroponte was referred to as “The Proconsul” during his service in Honduras, after the imperious governor of a pliant colony. And a critic of Negroponte was quoted in the same article as saying, “He conducted the smoothest, most discreet covert operation in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations.” But then he added that ignorance of most of the nasty things that the United States did in Mexico or Honduras under Negroponte’s tenure qualifies him as “a superb Ambassador of the United States.”
As Negroponte’s name is submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, these criticisms of his role in Honduras are bound to resurface. The big question is what the rest of his career record will say about his ability to serve American interests in the United Nations.
Ironically, what you cannot see from the conference room on 12th floor of 799 United Nations Plaza is the 39-floor building of the United Nations. During my visit there, the window in its direction was covered by the curtains. One can only wonder if that too, like the words of Ambassador Hume, was some kind of a sign.
Milan Milenkovic is a senior in Trumbull College. This column is the first of a three-part series on John D. Negroponte and the U.S. mission to the United Nations.