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Remembering Diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger

June 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Lawrence Eagleburger held crucial foreign policy posts under five different presidents and was anything but an ordinary diplomat. Margaret Warner remembers his life and career.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering an outspoken diplomat.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: He was lauded in diplomatic circles as the only career Foreign Service officer ever to become secretary of state, but Lawrence Eagleburger, who held crucial foreign policy posts under five presidents, was anything but the ordinary diplomat.

His State Department career took off in late 1968, when he became an assistant to and then protégé of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration. His Foggy Bottom years ended with five months as acting and then actual secretary of state for George H.W. Bush in 1992-’93.

Eagleburger’s Cabinet post came after nearly four years as the State Department’s number-two man under Secretary James Baker, a time when Eagleburger served as Baker’s number-one troubleshooter. Eagleburger was dispatched to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and again to Israel during the first Gulf War when Iraq fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state.

In a statement over the weekend, former President George H.W. Bush credited Eagleburger with persuading the Israelis not to shoot back. That could have killed the Arab state support for the war against Iraq.

“We sent Larry to Israel to preserve our coalition,” Mr. Bush said. “It was an inordinately complex and sensitive task, and his performance was nothing short of heroic.”

Yet, despite his three-piece suits, the perennially overweight, chain-smoking Eagleburger didn’t have the appearance of a diplomat. “TIME” magazine once said he looked like the Michelin Man with a cane.

He didn’t sound like a diplomat either. He relished blunt talk and humor, once referring to Ukraine as “my only six-aspirin country.” But what most characterized Larry Eagleburger as a foreign policy thinker was the hard-edged realism of his view of the world.

Seared by his years as a young embassy officer in Yugoslavia and as ambassador there in the ’70s, Eagleburger cautioned against U.S. intervention as Yugoslavia was disintegrating during the first Bush administration.

Then Secretary Eagleburger appeared on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in December 1992, after Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had just been reelected president of Serbia.

JIM LEHRER: So, it looks like Milosevic is going to remain president of Serbia. Is that bad news from the American point of view?

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: Well, obviously, we ought to wait until we have a clearer count. And we don’t want to intervene in their internal affairs. But the answer to your question, in short, is yes.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: We have seen all of the reports of humanitarian excesses, in terms of camps and murders and rapes. It is not a pretty picture. But the fighting goes on. It is intolerable. But as — we have talked about this on more than one occasion on your program.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: There is no immediate solution to this, outside the putting in some hundreds of thousands of troops to try to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Eight years later, despite having advised John McCain in the Republican primaries, he spoke approvingly of then candidate George W. Bush’s approach to the world.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: We have spent the last eight years bouncing around, putting troops where they didn’t belong. And I think it is perfectly appropriate. And I think one of the good things about this team that we see is, they are going to be far more careful before we commit American troops into situations where we are not clear about the objective and we are not clear about how long we ought to be involved.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, two years after that, he publicly split with President Bush on the wisdom of going to war against Iraq a second time.

After decades battling a neuromuscular disease, Eagleburger made his last public appearance May 18 at a State Department event. Just three weeks later, on Saturday, he died of pneumonia at a hospital near his home in Charlottesville, Va.

GWEN IFILL: Lawrence Eagleburger was 80 years old.