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Review by Robert Earle

The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and the Changing Face of US Diplomacy by George W. Liebmann, I.B. Taurus, ISBN-13-978-1848858695, 2012, 384 pp., $99.00.

George Liebmann’s biography of John Negroponte is entitled The Last American Diplomat to make a point rather than to start an argument. He knows that Negroponte wasn’t the last American diplomat, but he wants to assert the point that Negroponte’s diplomatic career was exemplary to the point of being almost inimitable.

The approach Liebmann takes to documenting this assertion is sound. Rather than fall into the trap of writing a biography that amounts to something like an Homeric catalogue — citing Negroponte’s postings in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Washington, Ecuador, Greece, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, the U.N., and Iraq before two final assignments as the first Director of the Office of National Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of State — he places each assignment in a well-informed and objective context. This is the right way to go because no diplomat stands apart from the administrations he served, the policies he executed and helped formulate, and the major changes in global affairs that are inevitable over a span of four decades.

According to Liebmann, John Negroponte always wanted to be a diplomat and didn’t hesitate to drop out of Harvard Law School when he received an appointment to the U.S. Foreign Service. By the time Negroponte bid the Department of State farewell, he had served under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush.

As Liebmann tells the tale, Negroponte quickly volunteered for service in Vietnam because that’s where the action was. Nowadays people tend to forget that the Vietnam debacle made sense to Americans well into the 1960s. But Negroponte saw a fractured society at ground level and spoke Vietnamese well enough to understand what policymakers in Washington didn’t: there might be a Cold War rationale for sending 500,000+ U.S. troops to Vietnam to support a vague commitment to the people of South Vietnam; massive troop deployments wouldn’t, however, enable us to prevail. Ultimately Negroponte became the National Security Council’s young Vietnam expert, attempting to support peace talks in which Henry Kissinger capitulated without telling the South Vietnamese government in advance. Negroponte disagreed with Kissinger’s expedient maneuvering, and they had a falling out so pronounced that he soon found himself in exile from The White House, serving as a political officer in Quito, Ecuador.

Liebmann’s Vietnam analysis is excellent. He explores Negroponte’s experience thoroughly but doesn’t limit himself to one young officer’s dramatic but ultimately disillusioning rise and fall. He explains Johnson, Johnson’s inner circle, the South Vietnamese leadership, the north/south and Buddhist/Christian divide, and then Nixon’s decision to leapfrog Vietnam for bigger issues: dialogue with China and detente with the USSR. Liebmann puts things bluntly: “Nixon had effectively given up on Vietnam.”

Negroponte’s fallback position was a good one: he was a Foreign Service Officer, and he liked learning new languages, tackling issues from tuna wars to the ozone hole over the Antarctic, and doing the basic business of diplomacy whether as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the East Asia Bureau or as Consul General in Thessaloniki.

But despite John Negroponte was too bright, observant, energetic, and unafraid of challenges to stay out of the limelight (or trouble) for long. Liebmann summarizes Negroponte’s appointment as an ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s in unflattering terms. “Honduras permanently scarred Negroponte’s reputation. The principal wound was not inflicted by a a disinformation campaign from Managua…but from his crude editing of a single ‘human rights report,’ that for 1982, which impaired Congressional trust in his candor.” This pronouncement is overstated. The senate confirmed Negroponte to increasingly important post five times after Honduras. By the time he volunteered for a dangerous mission impossible in Iraq, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was abundant in its praise and gratitude. Why? Because Negroponte was a straight shooter with members of congress. He welcomed them to countries where he was ambassador; he listened to them; he enabled them to consult directly with their foreign counterparts. That built trust.

Liebmann’s account of Negroponte’s tenure as ambassador to Mexico focuses on the North American Free Trade Agreement, drugs and migration. The Mexicans initially worried that Negroponte was, in the words of the leftist newspaper Uno Mas Uno, a submarine that would torpedo them beneath the surface, but Mexico and Negroponte got on well. Negroponte was perhaps America’s finest ambassador to one of America’s most important foreign capitals. Liebmann notes that Negroponte regarded Mexico as his most satisfying assignment as well as the place where he achieved the most important results — NAFTA ranking a tad above his negotiation of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Liebmann’s illuminating discussion of NAFTA is more distressing than encouraging. He characterizes NAFTA as a plus, but he inadvertently makes a stronger case that it was disastrous: wiping out Mexican agriculture in the southern portion of the country, provoking mass migrations to Mexican cities and across the border, and ultimately leading to the displacement of thousands of Mexicans from rural labor to the drug trade. Further, he does an excellent job pointing out how the United States failed to manage labor displacement issues on both sides of the border. Today Mexico is a daily horror show in part because we did not develop adequate trade and labor adjustment mechanisms and supplemental financial institutions. Negroponte, Liebmann suggests, would have preferred a return to a bracero program of temporary visas for Mexican agricultural workers. But Negroponte knew the George H.W. Bush administration wouldn’t go for that or cross-border development banks, either. Instead, we’ve spent billions training and arming the Mexican police and army and building a wall along the border. The Maginot Line didn’t work, either.

A diplomat’s mission is to serve. At Negroponte’s level, it became to advise, to forestall, and to try to make bad policy better. At the U.N., Liebmann writes, Negroponte wasn’t a member of the Cheney-led neoconservative war party, and he was restrained in pushing the Security Council for a definitive resolution supporting armed intervention. Instead, the British ambassador to the U.N., Sir Jeremy Greenstock, led the charge (something Greenstock came to regret.) But after we made a mess invading Iraq, Negroponte offered to try to turn things around. Liebmann’s account of Negroponte’s time in Iraq (which I also describe in my book, Nights in the Pink Motel) is a good one. Negroponte forged a solid relationship with commanding General George Casey; they agreed on a strategy to clear the way for Iraqi national elections; and the first democratic elections in the history of the Arab Middle East were held.

Negroponte’s appointment as the initial Director of National Intelligence is something Liebmann portrays as plagued with putting out fires between intelligence agencies and trying to keep White House operatives from conducting ill-advised covert operations. Negroponte then moved on to serve as Deputy Secretary of State. He was State’s chief operating officer and took a special interest in Northeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and to a certain degree, Afghanistan/Pakistan, which he believed to be two sides of an indivisible problem. Negroponte’s professional stature stabilized the ship of State. Foreign Service Officers feared serving in Iraq. but how could they say no to John Negroponte? His example of discipline and courage overwhelmed all objections.

During John Negroponte’s career in diplomacy, the United States was blessed with outstanding diplomats like Thomas Pickering, Arthur Hartman, Rozanne Ridgway, Robert Oakley and Frank G. Wisner. But it does none of these exceptional Foreign Service Officers an injustice that Liebmann, an accomplished lawyer and engaged citizen, has devoted his talents to examining Negroponte’s career in extenso. Negroponte was, if not America’s last diplomat, America’s quintessential diplomat.

Three groups definitely should read this book: 1) those who lived through the Cold War and are now almost through the War on Terror and want to relive the times of their lives; 2) those who want to know exactly how diplomacy fits into and interdependent world of instant communication; and 3) every new member of the U.S. Foreign Service, U.S. A.I.D., the Intelligence Agencies, and the officer corps of our armed services.

Liebmann illustrates a hundred times over how U.S. diplomats are confronted with extraordinary challenges on the spur of the moment and must draw on a combination of mother wit, education, and familiarity with local languages, customs and history to fashion at least provisional answers. We will never live in a world in which it isn’t important to know our foreign counterparts, be able to speak their language, know when to trust and when not to trust them, and know how to deal with the fact that “Washington” may believe in American “exceptionalism”, but no one else does for a minute.End.

[Book Editor’s Note: Robert Earle served under John D. Negroponte when Negroponte was Deputy Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence, and Ambassador to Mexico, the U.N., and Iraq.]American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Robert Earle
Robert Earle

Robert Earle’s last three posts in government were as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State. He is the author of Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press), a reflection on his year in Iraq, and The Man Clothed in Linen: Messiah or Son of Herod?, a novel about Jesus, the Jews, and the Romans, (Kindle, Nook, I-Books, and other e-book vendors). He has published many short stories in literary magazines across the U.S.

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