The Full Negroponte

Iraq will once again become a sovereign nation on June 30, 2004, as power is handed over to a yet to be determined group of individuals that will act in the name of the Iraqi people. Still, it's going to be a mighty funny sort of sovereignty.

The country will be patrolled by more than150,000 foreign military personnel, overwhelmingly American, operating under the command of an American general. Not only will the "sovereign" Iraq lack control over the foreign troops in its midst, whatever Iraqi security forces can be trained during the transitional period will also be controlled by the American commander.

Overseeing all of this will be an American "ambassador" who, in light of the military situation, will have a lot more leverage over the host government than your typical diplomat. Commensurate with this unorthodox setup, the embassy will be by far America's largest, with more than 3,000 civilian employees stationed there. The administration announced Sunday that the president would, as rumored, nominate a grossly unfit candidate, current United Nations Ambassador John Negroponte.

According to The New York Times, the choice reflects a victory for Secretary of State Colin Powell over the war's architects at the Pentagon. This has proven to be of some solace to many liberals. In reality, though, it should count as just one more reason for liberals to be skeptical about Powell's merits.

Negroponte speaks no Arabic and has no background in the Middle East or the Islamic world. What he does have is a good deal of experience with counterinsurgency. Bad experience. Experience dating from the waning days of the Vietnam War through the Reagan administration's policies in Central America and consisting largely of propping up right-wing dictators, violating human rights, and working to deceive the Congress and the American people.

The post of ambassador to Honduras, which Negroponte held from 1981 to 1985, is not normally a crucial one in the grand scheme of U.S. foreign policy. Negroponte's main task, however, was a rather vital one: implementing the Reagan administration's illegal efforts to arm and train Contra rebels, who would then cross the border into neighboring Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government there. As the CIA, which oversaw the Contra operation, eventually admitted, the rebel force "engaged in kidnapping, extortion, and robbery to fund its operations." Wishing to avoid combat with the Nicaraguan army, it became, in essence, a terrorist group, attacking civilian targets in an effort to disrupt Nicaragua's economy and society.

Honduras was, at the time, a military dictatorship operating beneath a civilian facade. Negroponte's policy was to use U.S. aid not to push the country toward democracy but to further increase the strength of its military. His predecessor had warned him that he ought to be concerned about an increase in recent years in repression and human-rights violations, but, to put it bluntly, he didn't care. Instead, he looked the other way as the CIA trained the infamous Battalion 316, a project of Honduran military intelligence responsible for widespread torture, kidnapping, and extrajudicial killing.

Negroponte cannot, of course, be held personally responsible for every bad action undertaken by U.S.-supported forces in Central America -- or even only in Honduras -- during the 1980s. Surely, though, he bears a responsibility for some of it. How much, exactly, we can't be sure -- because he refuses to even try to mount an honest defense on his activities at the time. During his 2001 confirmation hearings for the U.N. job, he told the Senate, "To this day, I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras."

Perjury? Perhaps it all depends on what the meaning of "death squads" is, but Battalion 316 seems to fit the bill. An inquiry (with names redacted to protect sources) into CIA activity in Honduras concluded that Negroponte was not only aware of human-rights abuses but actively sought to cover them up:

[------] on November 22, 1983 that the Ambassador [Negroponte] was particularly sensitive regarding the issue and was concerned that earlier CIA reporting on the same topic might create a human rights problem for Honduras. Based on the Ambassador's reported concerns [------] actively discouraged [------] [------] from following up the information reported by the [-------] source.

The defense, moreover, that Negroponte was somehow unaware of political conditions in Honduras fails miserably as an effort at exoneration. To his critics, he was complicit in human-rights violations. To his defenders, he didn't know about them (in other words, he was an incompetent ambassador). Either way, he's grossly unsuited for further service in the U.S. government, especially for a job in which he would be overseeing further counterinsurgency efforts supposedly undertaken in order to spread the gospel of democracy to the Middle East.

So far, however, the prospect of a Negroponte appointment has been met with deafening silence by the small army of liberal pundits who supported the Iraq War on humanitarian grounds. Paul Berman, perhaps the leading war supporter on the intellectual left, wrote long ago in the Prospect of his ambiguous feelings toward the Bush administration:

But this is the same Bush who appointed John Negroponte to be ambassador to the United Nations -- an ambassador who comes to his new post trailing an abysmal record of official mendacity and a murky relation to the darkest of deeds. At least, that is Negroponte's reputation among some of us who constituted the Central America press corps back in the 1980s, when he served as ambassador to Honduras. (The New York Review of Books recently published a concise account of Negroponte's Central American career, written by Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times.) At the United Nations, we need right now someone who can summon the nations of the world to a principled alliance for liberty and law. Bush has appointed an ambassador whose every speech will make those words seem like lies. It is as if, in his heart of hearts, Bush is a man given to Hollywood jauntiness and a cult of dark adventure, but now and then a wise adviser catches his attention, or a skillful writer hands him a well-considered speech to read aloud, and then a second Bush suddenly speaks up, who turns out to be a man of thoughtful principles.

The game is now up. I would never deny that the Bush White House employs a talented group of speechwriters. The trouble is that the president doesn't follow through on his high-toned rhetoric. It's true of his domestic policy and it's true of his foreign policy as well. Prospect Executive Editor Michael Tomasky speculated yesterday that perhaps the president is simply too inept to follow through on his purported idealism. Negroponte, however, is anything but incompetent. He just doesn't care.

Right now America's Iraq policy is operating under two clouds. Many Americans doubt that the administration was honest in building its case for war, and many Arabs doubt that the administration is sincere in its commitment to building a democratic Iraq. To succeed, the president needs to get out from under those clouds and build support both at home and abroad for his policies. Can a worse way to accomplish this be imagined than sending to Baghdad a diplomat with blood on his hands and a record of lying to Congress? Perhaps it can -- but I really don't want to know what it is.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.

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