A Break-the-Mold Diplomat
by David Jones
Reginald Bartholomew (76) died of cancer on 26 August 2012 in New York City.
“Reggie” or “Reg” (as one doubts that he was ever called “Reginald” after christening) was one of the consummately talented diplomats of his generation; a group that falls between the “greatest generation” of Depression/WWII and the “boomers” now edging into retirement. In this regard, he ranks with Mike Glitman, Phil Habib, Tom Enders, and Richard Holbrooke.
The great challenge for this era was “containment”—a 45-year long, hold the line effort to thwart Soviet communism from global expansion and particularly from dominating the rubble of postwar Europe. It was a day-by-day, grind it out commitment without military glory (or military devastation) ending ultimately with Soviet collapse and a peaceful triumph for democracy. The diplomatic pillars for this effort were a series of partial measures: CSCE; nuclear arms control, such as the INF Treaty; and conventional weapons accords such as CFE. The political military elements were the continual maintenance of NATO readiness and negotiation of basing agreements/burden sharing arrangements. Bartholomew was a key member of this construction team.
Although not a come-up-from-the-ranks FSO, Bartholomew held multiple ambassadorships (Lebanon, Spain, NATO, Italy) as well as being director of the Political-Military Affairs bureau (before it qualified for an assistant secretary) and was Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs (T). Despite civil service origins, Reg was most noted for his negotiating ability both in arranging U.S. basing agreements and devising mechanisms for arms control. If there was a tough diplomatic/negotiating problem, he was likely to be on the short list to be thrown into the fray. Not always successful (his embassy blown up in Lebanon and he failed to retain key basing rights in Spain), he was always dynamic, creative, and a forceful proponent of U.S. interests.
Reg was a consummate political survivor. Rising to prominence during the Carter administration, he persisted through Republicans Reagan and Bush 41, leaving public office only with the advent of the Clinton administration. The key to this longevity was a powerful mentor: Larry Eagleburger, who held various senior positions at State. The Eagleburger-Bartholomew relationship reportedly began at DOD and persisted throughout Reg’s career. It was most obvious at the end of the Carter administration when Reg was replaced as PM director, but warehoused (in reserve for the Republic) at FSI learning German. This was essentially amusement, albeit boring, for a man with remarkable linguistic talents, able to pick up a working knowledge of multiple languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Greek) with minimal exposure.
Consequently, when Secretary Haig with Eagleburger as his agent went looking for a “Very Special Person” to address the ongoing Cyprus problem, he battened on Reg. The USG still hoped that the division of Cyprus following the Turkish 1974 invasion was reversible with appropriate “carrots” and guarantees through U.S.-UN action. Thus in 1981, Reg became the first Special Cyprus Coordinator and I, as the Cyprus Desk Officer, his designated support. Knowing him from NATO nuclear modernization efforts, I said when he assumed the position that I was “not all of PM, not all of EUR, not even all of EUR/SE, but I was all he had.” Reg laughed and set to work on the issue.
Indeed, this was one of the better times to have worked with Reg. He had been chastened by being jettisoned from PM, but wanted to get back into the game. Many were dubious; they thought he would take the high intensity, make-the-dust-fly approach that previously characterized his tactics. Instead, he carefully assessed the limits of the possible, met all players both on Cyprus and at the UN, and determined the sides were irreconcilable. It was not an insolvable dilemma—a political science 101 student could devise an agreement—but the actors were sufficiently content with existing circumstances not to risk the challenges of a solution.
So Reg moved on. Having proved that he could control his energies and be content with managing rather than resolving a problem, he was assigned the Greek base negotiations. If anything, prospects for securing a new Defense Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA) with Athens were considered less than resolving the Cyprus problem. A newly victorious socialist government was existentially hostile to the USG. The preceding conservative regime attempted to reach agreement extracting maximum benefits—and help them win the election. The USG concessions, economic and military, were deemed insufficient, and the U.S. embassy-led negotiators were unable to bridge the divide. Moreover, the USG had no need for a new DECA; the existing agreement was of indefinite duration and to withdraw from it Greece would also have to leave NATO. Not a smart move with NATO as Athen’s main bulwark against Ankara.
Nevertheless, the Greek base negotiations were a Bartholomew tour-de-force. Reg was best when he had only one problem, no matter how complex, to address; multiple problems/management such as running PM, T, or an embassy didn’t confuse, but distracted and irritated. He mastered every detail of the Greek bases issue, reviewing each element of previous unsuccessful efforts; a draft SOFA; possible military equipment for sale/donation; and USG technical requirements for the bases, each of which had different complexities. In so doing, he assembled a comprehensive briefing book that his Greek interlocutor somewhat dismissively referred to as “Bartholomew’s brains.” The Greeks assumed that because they were Greeks, they knew the issues better than any American. They were wrong—Reg totally outclassed them.
Reg’s strategy and tactics were innovative and creative. He disarmed senior military officials in Washington and Europe (convinced that State wanted to negotiate their bases away) by insisting they agree to his approaches saying, “You’ll have to live with the results.” Before meeting with Greeks, he visited all senior commanders and bases asking for—and listening to—their opinions and preferences. He brought a small support team from Washington and isolated it from the embassy, using only the DCM as his negotiating deputy. This tactic eliminated potential media leaks that plagued previous negotiations—making it clear any negotiation leaks came from Greek officials.
Personally, Reg was in his element, leading/persuading his U.S. team by force of intellect and good humor. Attempting during this period to stop smoking, he failed and team members would toss matchbooks to “our matchless negotiator.” Sessions with the Greeks were very late night affairs after which Reg and the negotiating team often would adjourn to a favorite local restaurant for an ouzo nightcap. But as the rounds ground through 1983 into 1984, Reg grew impatiently frustrated. He would comment that he had “solved” the issue; he just couldn’t get the Greeks to accept.
Finally, however, with some top level nudges, we reached agreement. But Reg had managed a classic success—securing all U.S. objectives while withholding most of the military aid he had available along with more favorable DECA language. If he had a strong reputation as a negotiator previously, now he was “scary” for prospective opponents.
And this “rep” may have led to major failure in his effort as ambassador to renegotiate U.S. bases in Spain. Although ultimately we secured an agreement in September 1988 covering air/naval assets, our F-16 fighters were evicted from the crown jewel Torrejon air base near Madrid. Indeed, Prime Minister Gonzalez broke off negotiations in December 1987, reportedly leaving the U.S. negotiator devastated. Ultimately, Reg concluded that the Spanish were afraid of him; convinced that even the most legitimate U.S. offer had hidden traps.
Such didn’t prevent further senior assignments: Undersecretary as “T”; a brief Permrep assignment at NATO, and finally a four-year stint in Rome—almost “home” for an Italian-American. And then a comfortable retirement with Merrill Lynch.
But there was a dark side to Reg’s brilliance. He was also—in a prevalent comment by colleagues—“a piece of work.” He didn’t bear fools graciously and seemed to regard much of the world to reside in that category. Consequently, he left bruised feelings and bitter enemies along his path. He did not gather a “team”; it was the rare FSO that worked for him twice.
As he rose in the hierarchy, his hubris rose as well. A mercurial temper became volcanic. He raged at hapless subordinates writing them kill-your-career efficiency reports. He seemed to delight in practicing the “Darth Vader” school of management substituting angry outrage for calm discussion. One FSO, invited to apply for a special assistant position while he was T, arrived at the office to hear him SCREAMING through the walls at some nameless victim. Quickly determining there were enough children at home, she withdrew her bid.
Some believe that he never fully recovered emotionally from the devastating Lebanon embassy terrorist truck-bomb explosion in 1984 that injured him and regular terrorist attacks on his vehicle and home until he departed in 1986.
Reg was prototypically the “man in full.” One regrets he left no memoir/oral history.