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Newsmaker: John Negroponte

June 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to our newsmaker with the new American ambassador to Iraq , John Negroponte. I spoke with him earlier today at the State Department.

Ambassador Negroponte, welcome to the program.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: This morning we got news from Baghdad that there were two more bombings, one of some considerable size and deadliness. I guess it just underscores what’s leading up to your moving to Iraq to take charge of the American enterprise there.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, the challenges are indeed daunting, but I think with the transfer of sovereignty, the full exercise of sovereignty to the government, interim government of Iraq on the 30th of June, I think there are great opportunities ahead in various areas, but certainly in the political area. The government will be planning for elections to take place not later than the 30th of January next year for a national assembly.

Security is definitely a difficult issue, but I think there with the presence of the, continued presence of a multinational force and a major training effort being undertaken for Iraqi security forces, I think the prospects over time of stabilizing the security situation would appear to be good.

RAY SUAREZ: Given the daunting list, the Iraqi to-do list, can you build a state that’s in this current situation? Can you start doing the things you need to do to make life in Iraq normal when this kind of thing is happening in the capital city?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, yes, the to-do list may be long, but I think one has to focus and prioritize, and I think that first of all there’s the political, that we mentioned, moving towards these elections.

Second there’s security, where I think training and enabling the Iraqi security forces– police, armed forces, border police and so forth — is an extremely important priority, and we plan to devote substantial effort to that, including the assignment of a three-star general who will have full responsibility for the training of those forces.

And last but certainly not least, working on the reconstruction efforts and the revival of the Iraqi economy where we have substantial resources at our disposal — $18.4 billion — which has been voted by our Congress to support the reconstruction of Iraq.

So I think those are the three key priorities. The Iraqis do have past administrative experience. They have a well-educated society. They’ve had administrative experience in the past. This is not a completely failed state. I think it’s a question of pulling these different elements together and moving forward, and I think that can be done.

RAY SUAREZ: You are entering the country as Paul Bremer leaves, and the coalition provisional authority sunsets. What changes about Iraq and what changes about the American presence when these comings and goings are accomplished?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, what changes, first of all, is that the interim government of Iraq will reassert the full exercise of sovereignty by the people and the government of Iraq . I’m not going out there to replace Ambassador Bremer. Ambassador Bremer will be handing off to the interim government of Iraq .

And once he’s done that, then I will present my credentials to the new government of Iraq as an ambassador and the role of my embassy, although it will be substantial and will be involved in a wide number of areas, will be one of support and assistance and not one of being the ultimate political authority in the country. So I think that’s the fundamental difference.

RAY SUAREZ: But won’t you be a unique ambassador in that 140,000 of your countrymen will also be in uniform on the ground in the country where you serve?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, there’s no question that Iraq is a unique situation. There are 140,000 troops in the multinational force. We have this substantial reconstruction and development program that you mentioned, but it will be in the context of a fully sovereign Iraq and in the context of us supporting the Iraqis as they work to stabilize their country from a security point of view, establish a democracy, and bring hope to the people of Iraq through economic development and reconstruction.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it help to have the United Nations resolution in place, sort of defining the ground rules in addition to the presence of the new Iraqi government? Does it make it clearer where you fit in, in all of this?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think it helps in at least a couple of ways. First of all, I think that it involves an international endorsement, if you will, and legitimation of the continued presence of the multinational force.

The resolution also endorsed the political timetable that has been established by the Iraqis, and as you know, they intend to have a national conference in the middle of July, and then the elections, which will take place later on. I think it also was important, the U.N. resolution, in terms of encouraging other countries to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq .

RAY SUAREZ: The coalition provisional authority set a lot of things in motion, a lot of development projects, a lot of investments, a lot of ongoing work that hasn’t yet borne fruit. Are you in effect the executive who now inherits all of these open portfolios?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Yes. The short answer to that is yes. We will be establishing an office called the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office right in the embassy, which will have responsibility for overseeing the implementation of projects, and to the extent that there are monies that have not yet been committed or obligated, we will have the responsibility for identifying projects and prioritizing them. And I’ve given a lot of attention to identifying the right kinds of people to come in and assist me in that.

RAY SUAREZ: As a practical day- to-day matter, are you going to be in close contact? How do the lines of authority work with the armed forces of the United States that will be in the country while you’re serving as ambassador?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, of course, the armed forces are responsible to the multinational force commander, who in turn has his military chain of command, which leads through General Abizaid and to the secretary of defense. So it is a separate chain of command. But we are committed– and I’ve already had a number of meetings with General Casey– we are committed to working extremely closely together because we realize that there is… that the military and political issues are inextricably linked, and I would expect that we would be working together on a daily basis, talking to each other several times a day and really coordinating in a partnership fashion.

RAY SUAREZ: So even though he answers to another person in uniform…

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: You’re not going to find out about things by reading about them in the paper?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: No, in fact, it’s an imperative. I think that one of the keys to our success out there is going to be the degree to which he and I and our respective organizations can work in the best of harmony, and I’m sure that can be done.

RAY SUAREZ: The Iraqi people, for their part, in a recent survey taking by the coalition provisional authority, say by a wide majority that they think continued American armed presence in the country makes them less safe rather than safer.

When you saw those numbers, were you a little discouraged, and is it your interest to turn that perception around?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, first, I’m not privy to all the details of how that survey was carried out. I assume it was in the context of the occupation. And now that that is coming to an end on the 30th of June, perhaps that will have an effect in changing attitudes.

Secondly, I think as we work on the training of Iraqi security forces, and we do want them to take on a greater and greater responsibility for their security so that we can over time make a corresponding reduction in our own security presence, I think that’s going to help attitudes.

And clearly if the security situation can be stabilized and some of these reconstruction monies can start having the kind of economic impact that we would like to see them have, maybe that, also, will help the situation.

RAY SUAREZ: And the U.N. It’s been a couple of difficult years between the United States and the United Nations. You were ambassador during that time. With the new resolution, with the continued U.N. Involvement in Iraq , are some of those fences being mended?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think they have been. I think when we had the difficult debate on Iraq more than a year ago, the relationships were somewhat frayed. I think the attitude of most of our colleagues on the Security Council now is that we’ve got to look forward. We don’t want Iraq to fail, we don’t want U.S. and coalition policies in Iraq to be unsuccessful.

Everybody has a stake in success in Iraq , and I think that that is the kind of spirit that we see prevailing now. There still have been some tough negotiations and tough discussions, but it’s certainly been easier to get resolutions on Iraq passed in recent months than it was previously.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve had a lot of postings over your long career, and you haven’t been to Iraq yet. I guess I should point that out.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: No.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this looking like the hardest thing you’ve had to do?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I’ve had aid assignments overseas during the course of my more than 40 years in the Foreign Service, and I would suppose that by an order of magnitude is this is going to be the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced. I’m mindful of that fact, but I’m encouraged by the strong support that I feel I have from the president and from the Congress, and from the excellent team of people that I’ve been able to pull together who will serve with me in our new embassy in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Negroponte, thanks for being with us.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: It’s been a pleasure.