TOPICS > Nation

Diplomat Joseph John Sisco Dies at 85

November 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Joseph John Sisco was the embodiment of the modern, activist negotiator and diplomat. The son of Italian immigrants in Chicago, his career spanned five presidential administrations.

He rose to become undersecretary of state for political affairs, the number two position in the State Department. The tall, energetic diplomat played a key role in Middle East policy, including serving as deputy to secretary of state Henry Kissinger during his shuttle diplomacy in the 1970s.

He believed in the personal touch in diplomacy, like the time in 1970 when he showered Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in flowers to convince her to negotiate with Egypt.

“It won’t work,” said Meir. “I’m leaving no stone unturned,” he replied.

Ambassador Sisco appeared on the “NewsHour” 17 times over 26 years. In April of 1982, Robert MacNeil asked him about reports that the Palestinians were feeling increasingly desperate.

JOE SISCO: (April 1982) Well, I tend to agree that there is a sense of desperation. What is going on there at the moment is that Israel is pursuing a policy of trying to develop a Palestinian Arab leadership as an alternative to the PLO leadership.

And I believe that if the objective of such a policy is to ultimately get Palestinian Arabs to cooperate in a negotiated autonomy agreement, I think that’s significant. If the objective is de facto annexation, then I think ultimately this is a prescription for much added difficulty.

TERENCE SMITH: Nearly a decade later, he was back, urging the first Bush administration to take a hard line against Iraq in closing the Persian Gulf War.

JOE SISCO: (Feb. 1991) I think it’s important that the military defeat be very decisive. I think that the credibility of Saddam and the reduction of that credibility has to be decisive.

And the way to do this, both in reality as well as in perception, is to press ahead militarily until these forces really stop the fighting, give up, and return to Iraq, devoid of their equipment.

TERENCE SMITH: And in June of this year, he was applauding the second Bush administration for its foreign policy.

JOE SISCO: (June 2004) It goes beyond Iraq. We’re on the diplomatic course in Iran, and Iran is a great challenge in the nuclear field. I believe in 2005 and we’re marking time right now. The real threat will be North Korea. They’re ahead of Iran.

And here again, the Bush administration is moving collectively in Iran with a Europeans and Japan, collectively in Asia, with our Asian allies, so that mistakes, yes, but it’s moving in the right direction.

TERENCE SMITH: Joseph Sisco died yesterday at 85.