When the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq ends on June 30, administrator Paul Bremer will be going home. After that, the top-ranking U.S. official in Baghdad will have the simple title of "ambassador." But the man who will fill that position, John Negroponte, is no ordinary diplomat.
John Negroponte is used to hot spots. As ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, he directed the covert U.S. strategy of funneling weapons to Contra rebels trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The Contra connection so sullied his reputation that when President Bush named him ambassador to the United Nations in 2001, the nomination was held up for months in the Senate.
But approval swiftly followed the September 11th, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and he took up the U.N. post a week later, on September 18.
As U.S. envoy to the United Nations, the soft-spoken Mr. Negroponte won broad Security Council support for the war in Afghanistan, but on Iraq he ran into a wall of opposition. Diplomacy failed.
The Council refused to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein. A U.S. and British-led coalition went to war without U.N. backing, the one thing critics argued would have given the invasion international legitimacy.
Little more than a year later, however, failure was transformed to triumph. Without a single dissenting vote, the Security Council ratified a U.S. and British sponsored resolution restoring full Iraqi sovereignty.
In March 2003, envoys from France and Germany had bitterly rejected Ambassador Negroponte's diplomatic overtures. Fifteen months later, they offered warm praise for his consensus building.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who at times has been sharply critical of U.S. action in Iraq, said working with Ambassador Negroponte had been a pleasure.
"He is a diplomat's diplomat and I think he has managed to work with the council members in a very difficult situation, and I think it is also a bit of a tribute to him that one of the last resolutions he dealt with was voted on unanimously by the council. We look forward to continuing our cooperation with him from the other side," he said.
The "other side" Mr. Annan refers to is Baghdad. At the height of Security Council negotiations on the Iraq resolution, President Bush asked Ambassador Negroponte to take the job of envoy to Baghdad. He takes over the day coalition administrator Paul Bremer hands over power to Iraq's interim government.
During an informal chat after the Iraq resolution passed, Ambassador Negroponte emphasized that there will be a clear distinction between his job and that of Mr. Bremer.
"The important point to make is that I am not going to be replacing Mr. Bremer. The Interim Government of Iraq will replace Mr. Bremer," he noted. "He will be, on June 30, passing the baton to the Interim Government of Iraq. I will be an ambassador, with traditional ambassadorial authorities, accredited to the new government of Iraq once it takes office. And the authorities and the role that I will have will differ rather substantially from those of somebody who was, in effect, the ultimate authority in that country."
Ambassador Negroponte has a reputation as a man who gets things done. In Baghdad, he will head the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with more than three-thousand employees. In addition, there are 140,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.
But Mr. Negroponte said he expects the United Nations to take the lead in helping Iraq's interim government make the transition to a democratically-elected government.
"Mind you, the United Nations is going to be involved, they may not be as extensively involved right now as they will be in the future, but they are definitely going to be involved in facilitating the political and electoral process," he added. "And there is no question that the assistance of the United Nations, with respect to the organizing of elections during the next six months, and the preparations for elections to take place not later than January 30 next year is going to be vitally important."
Ambassador Negroponte expressed disappointment that troop contributions to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq have not been greater, but he said he would continue to ask the international community to help the Iraqi people.
"So I am not telling you that just as a result of the passage of this resolution there will necessarily be a flood of offers of assistance," he explained. "But for those countries for whom both the ending of the occupation and the reassertion of Iraqi sovereignty have been important benchmarks, if you will, which could enable them to give Iraq assistance going forward, we would urge them to seize that opportunity."
The U.S. envoy described his two-and-one-half years at the United Nations as "very hard work" and "intense." He said he was pleased that the sometimes sharp differences over Iraq had never spilled over to personal relationships with colleagues.
The U.S. envoy has had an, at times, testy relationship with journalists. As he looked back at his U.N. tenure, a reporter asked if he would be glad to be rid of the press corps. He paused just a second before replying with his own question.
"Don't you have representatives in Baghdad?" he asked.
As ambassador to Iraq, Mr. Negroponte is expected to continue his close association with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Secretary Powell is said to have sponsored his nomination to both the U.N. and Baghdad positions.
The two men worked closely together during part of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when Mr. Powell was National Security Adviser and Mr. Negroponte was his deputy.