International Socialist Review Issue 36, JulyAugust 2004
Ambassador John Negroponte: Our Man in Baghdad
BY JEN ROESCH
On June 30, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has ruled Iraq for nearly a year, will close for business. It is expected to open its doors the next day as the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.1
Asked whether anti-American candidates would be allowed to run, [undersecretary of state for political affairs Marc] Grossman responded: "Thats why were going to have an embassy there, and its going to have a lot of people and an ambassador.".
When Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) asked what the Bush administration would do "if they start doing things that are in contradiction to what American foreign policy might be," the undersecretary responded as he had earlier, saying that is "why we want to have an American ambassador in Iraq."2
AS THE Bush administration continues to reel from the torture scandal in Iraq, plummeting polls, and increasing calls to bring the troops home, it is pinning its hopes on the "transfer of power" to an Iraqi "caretaker government" on June 30. This new Iraqi government has been handpicked (with U.S. approval) by UN Special Envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi and will have no authority to make new laws or to place any restrictions on the U.S. occupiers. Real power in Iraq will continue to lie in the hands of the military coalition and its civilian counterpartthe newly created U.S. embassy.
When it opens on July 1, this embassy will be the largest in the worldwith 1,000 American and 700 foreign employees. It will be double the size of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which is currently the largest. One State Department official has referred to it as "an embassy on steroids."3 On May 6, in a greatly expedited process, the Senate confirmed Bushs nominee to run this missioncurrent U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte. Its a choice that tells you a lot about U.S. strategy and priorities for post&-June 30 Iraq.
Negropontes career highlights from his time as the U.S. ambassador in Honduras include:
Supervising the creation of a death squad unit (Battalion 316) that has been linked to the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Hondurans;
Crafting human rights reports that carefully exclude a pattern of torture and human rights violations covered by the entire Honduran media and later documented by the CIA;
Brokering a steady stream of U.S. aid to Honduras in exchange for the right to use the country as a launching pad for the U.S.-backed Contra attack on Nicaragua.
This is a man who should have seen his career go down in flames when the Iran-Contra scandal broke out in the mid&-1980s. Not only have human rights groups extensively documented his role in the "dirty wars" of Central America; the CIA has even compiled reports that could serve as the basis for a war crimes indictment. But Negroponte has never lacked for work and has been appointed to diplomatic posts under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Today, he is hailed in the mainstream press as a seasoned diplomat and skilled negotiator. His nomination as ambassador to Iraq is being portrayed by the media as a victory for the Colin Powell wing of the administrationa victory of diplomacy over unilateralism.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee carried out Bushs request to expedite hearings and rushed Negropontes approval through. At his Senate hearing on May 6, senators fell over themselves praising Negroponte as the best man for the job and confirmed him in a 95&-3 vote. Joseph Biden, the Senate Foreign Relations Committees senior Democrat, told him: "It takes moral, political and physical courage for you to undertake this. We owe you a debt of gratitude."4 Biden is the same man who threatened to hold up Negropontes nomination to the UN in 2001 because of his history of human rights abuses.
Why the sudden praise? Both Republicans and Democrats see Negroponte as part of the solution to the crisis in Iraq. Throughout May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the June 30 transfer of power and future of Iraq. What these hearings expose is the desire to create a rationale for a continued troop presence in Iraq, while eliminating the appearance of an occupation. In a hearing on May 19, Joseph Biden stated this very clearly:
We only have a window that is only open so long for the American people to say, "Lets get this done. We are willing to make the sacrifices to get it done." But the American people, I think, are still with us, because they know that if we fail in Iraq, it could take a generation to recover from the damage. We should use that date [June 30] as the rationale for our continued and increased presence and international presence or major power presence in Iraq. And that is that our purpose is to hold successful elections in 2005 in December. Thats the rationale for our being there. Thats the rationale for why we are going to stay there. Putting the focus on elections, in my view, would provide a rationale for Europeans and Arab leaders to join the effort. It would provide a reason for Iraqi caretaker governments to be able to be seen as cooperating with thequote"occupiers."5
Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, hammered home this point: "Just because theres a transition, and just because were going to move from this election to that election does not mean America will leave Iraq. We are not going to leave this job undone, and I just want to be clear about that."6
Negropontes testimony in the Senate concurred. Iraq forces "will come under the unified command of the multinational force," and "as far as American forces are concerned, coalition forces, I think theyre going to have the freedom
to operate in Iraq as they best see fit."7 In the same hearing he made clear that UN involvement in the occupation "does not come at the expense of the United States influence or interests."8
As ambassador, Negroponte will not simply take over U.S. occupation head L. Paul Bremers offices; he will also take over his role as the ultimate political authority in the country. While a handpicked interim government will have nominal control, Negroponte will wield real power. He will coordinate with coalition military forces, which will operate under a U.S. chain of command and retain control over security for the country. He will be in charge of the $20 billion U.S. reconstruction budget. And his office will absorb the officials currently working in the Coalition Provisional Authority. To be successful, the U.S. needs to create the appearance of a sovereign government while controlling the key decisions from behind the scenes. They need someone who can quietly carry out U.S. interests while working to suppress the inevitable resistance. And no one understands the difference between appearances and reality better than John Negroponte.
Though Negroponte is most notorious for his role in the dirty wars of Central America when serving as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, his political career serves as something of a road map of U.S. imperialist strategy over the last thirty-five years.
Negropontes reputation as a hard-line cold warrior goes back to his early days serving in Vietnam. He got his start as a junior political officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon in the early 1960sjust as the U.S. was intensifying its involvement in Vietnam. He was present at the Paris peace talks where he argued that his mentor Henry Kissinger was making too many concessions. He eventually left Kissingers National Security Council over these differences.
After the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the government found itself reluctant to commit a large number of troops abroad and to aggressively pursue its aims. This "Vietnam syndrome" tied the hands of the United States and gave confidence to national liberation movements around the world. But hawks within the U.S. military establishment refused to accept such limitations on U.S. power. John Negroponte was one such figure. At his Senate confirmation hearing in 1981, he spoke for many military and political figures when he said: "I believe we must do our best not to allow the tragic outcome of Indochina to be repeated in Central America"9
When the Sandanistas overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator in Nicaragua in 1979 and inspired revolutionary movements in Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America became the flashpoint for a new cold war. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration launched a covert war to overthrow the government in Nicaragua and to turn back the insurgency throughout Latin America. The tiny country of Honduras, lying at the crossroads of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, became the main staging ground for this operation. In the process, a country that had known relative social peace became a land of the disappeared and death squads.
No one was more central to the success of U.S. operations in Honduras than John Negroponte. Negroponte, who served as Reagans ambassador from 1981 to 1985, wielded so much power in the country that he was known as the proconsul. During his reign, the U.S. embassy staff in Honduras increased ten-fold and came to house one of the largest CIA deployments in all of Latin America.10
Negroponte was responsible for ensuring that arms could flow smoothly through Honduras, that the U.S. could conduct training exercises there, and that the Honduran army was sufficiently equipped and supported to wipe out any rebels within its borders. U.S. military aid to Honduras increase from $4 million in 1980 to $77 million in 1984. By 1985, its economic aid had surpassed $200 millionbecoming the worlds eighth largest recipient of U.S. aid.11
Negroponte played a key role in organizing pro-Contra projects such as a U.S. counter-insurgency center at Puerto Castilla. Between 1981 and 1986, more than 60,000 U.S. soldiers and National Guard members traversed Honduras in military exercises that delivered arms to the Contras. He supervised the creation of the El Aguacate air base, which the U.S. used as a training facility for the Contras. The base was also used as a secret detention and torture centerthe Abu Ghraib of its day. In August 2001, excavations performed at the base uncovered 185 corpses, evidence of those thought to have been killed and buried there.12
Negroponte was the central agent overseeing a plan for the CIA to train a special intelligence unit under the direction of the chief of the Honduran armed forces General Gustavo Alvarez. Multiple investigations by the Honduran government, the CIA inspector general, and major newspapers have since revealed that this unit, Battalion 316, operated as a death squad in Honduras. Throughout its existence, Battalion 316 kidnapped suspects, used extensive means of torture in its interrogations, and then killed and dumped the bodies of those that were no longer useful. The exact number of people killed by Battalion 316 remains unknown. As of late 1993, the Honduran government listed 184 people as missing and presumed dead.13
The cold warrior Negroponte and the ardent anti-communist General Alvarez made natural collaborators. In a 1983 interview, Negroponte told New York Times correspondent James LeMoyne that "Marxist guerrillas are organizing here." He went on to say that Alvarez was a hard man but an effective officer.14
Alvarez believed that the only way to deal with "subversives" was with terror and violence. In a cable to Washington, former ambassador Jack Binns reported with alarm a conversation he had had with the general. "Alvarez stressed to me that democracies and the West are soft, perhaps too soft to resist Communist subversion. The Argentines, he said, had met the threat effectively, identifyingand taking care ofthe subversives. Their method, he opined, is the only effective way of meeting the challenge."15 (In the mid&-1970s, more than 12,000 Argentines were disappeared in a state-directed campaign of repression.)
With U.S. cooperation, Argentine military leaders were invited to Honduras to train Contra fighters and Honduran military officers in Battalion 316. Later, these leaders were trained by U.S. CIA agents both in Honduras and in the United States. Former members of the battalion have testified extensively about the training they received. Oscar Alvarez, a former Honduran special forces officer and diplomat, told the Baltimore Sun:
The Argentines came in first, and they taught us how to disappear people. The United States made them more efficient. They said, "You need someone to tap phones, you need someone to transcribe the tapes, you need surveillance groups." They taught us interrogation techniques.
The CIA training has been confirmed by Richard Stolzwho was deputy director of operations at the timein secret testimony before the Senate in 1988. Stolz told the Select Committee on Intelligence, "The course consisted of three weeks of classroom instruction followed by two weeks of practical exercises, which included the questioning of actual prisoners by the students."16
Although Negroponte would step in when a case threatened to get out of hand, he did not interfere with the activities of Battalion 316. In fact, Negroponte continued to deliver glowing reports of General Alvarez and the Honduran military throughout his tenure as ambassador. When General Alvarez came under attack, the ambassador was quick to deny any claims against him. On Negropontes recommendation, Reagan awarded Alvarez the Legion of Merit for "encouraging democracy" in 1983.
In order to keep a stream of U.S. funds flowing, Negroponte consistently turned his back on and covered up pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras. Reading the reports filed by Negropontes office between 1981 and 1985, one would imagine Honduras to be a constitutional democracy with full democratic rights. But his predecessor, Jack Binns, painted a very different picture in his cables to Washington. In a 1981 cable, Binns reported: "I am deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets, which clearly indicate [Honduran government] repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated."17
In response, Binns was brought to Washington and told by assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Thomas Enders, "to stop human rights reporting except in back channel. The fear was that if it came into the State Department, it will leak. They wanted to keep assistance flowing. Increased violations by the Honduran military would prejudice that."18 Enders confirmed Binns account of the 1981 meeting: "I told him that whereas human rights violations had been the single most important focus of the previous administrations policy in Latin America, the Reagan administration had broader interests."19 Shortly thereafter, Binns was removed from his post and replaced by Negroponte.
Despite the rising tide of violence and the increasing disappearances of Honduran citizens, Negroponte continued to send glowing reports to Washington. The 1983 State Department human rights report on Honduras claimed, "There are no political prisoners in Honduras."20 However, it would have been impossible for Negroponte not to have known about political prisoners and rights abuses. Honduran papers carried daily reports of the violence, including full-page pictures of the missing. In 1982 alone, there were at least 318 published stories of military violence. Members of Congress drafted resolutions calling for an investigation into the disappearances. And there were numerous demonstrations, numbering in the hundreds, of the families and friends of the disappeared.21
Negroponte could not have missed the growing pile of evidence that human rights abuses were being committed. In fact, subsequent reports and investigations reveal an attempt to systematically cover up such abuses. Rick Chidester, a junior political officer in the embassy, compiled substantial evidence of abuses in 1982 but claims he was ordered to delete most of it from the human rights report prepared for the State Department.22 This dovetails with a report that the CIA inspector general made in the early 1990s. Though the published version of the report is heavily edited, it does show that diplomats serving under Negroponte were discouraged from reporting abuses.
A diplomat whose name is blacked out in the report is quoted saying, "the embassy country team in Honduras wanted reports on subjects such as this to be benign." The inspector general goes on to conclude that Negroponte
was particularly sensitive regarding the issue and was concerned that earlier CIA reporting on the same topic might create human rights problems for Honduras. Based on the ambassadors reported concerns, ______ actively discouraged _______ from following up the information reported by the ______ source.
The following two pages of the report are entirely blacked out.23
Negroponte displayed the defining characteristics necessary for imposing the will of a foreign government on an unwilling population: a casual disdain for the truth, a willingness to work with despots and dictators, and the ability to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.
After the Iran-Contra scandal (during which it was revealed that the Reagan administration secretly traded arms to Iran, and U.S. agencies engaged in cocaine trafficking, to fund the Contras), Negroponte did have some difficulty finding another diplomatic post. Eventually, though, he became U.S. ambassador to Mexico where he helped to push through neoliberal economic measures. In 1993, President Clinton appointed him ambassador to the Philippines.
But his true comeback came in 2001 when George W. Bush picked him for the role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte was one of a series of former Contra era officials to be nominated by the Bush administration, including Elliot Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state under Reagan, who had been convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Negropontes appointment, in particular, signaled a new posture for the U.S. vis-à-vis the United Nations. A State Department official explained it this way:
In this new administration, we have a lot of people who are a decade or two older than the people who had the same jobs in the last administration. They remember the cold war. They want to reward and elevate people who fought on our side, including people who supported the contras. Negroponte is known as a guy who is devoted to realpolitik, which is in many ways the opposite of what the UN stands for. Giving him this job is a way of telling the UN: "We hate you."24