WASHINGTON — President Bush said Monday he would appoint his United Nations envoy, John D. Negroponte, ambassador to Iraq after the formal end of U.S. occupation on June 30, tapping a hardened career diplomat and troubleshooter to oversee the deep American role in the country.
Negroponte brings to the job more than four decades of diplomatic service in which he was often the agent of bitterly contested American foreign policy. The head of a human rights organization said Monday that the Senate should consider Negroponte's record -- especially as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s -- before confirming him in his sensitive and dangerous post.
In Honduras, serving under President Reagan, Negroponte was known as "the Proconsul" for his influence in running the country. While he served as ambassador, Honduras became a center for covert U.S. activities against the leftist government of neighboring Nicaragua.
As ambassador to Baghdad, he would have to avoid appearing to be an American puppet-master to succeed in rebuilding relations among Iraqis, Americans and the United Nations.
If confirmed as ambassador to Iraq, Negroponte would oversee the largest U.S. embassy in the world, with a staff of about 3,000. He is seen as likely to be more low-key than L. Paul Bremer III, Bush's current civilian administrator in Iraq. Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has been the face of the American occupation since May. Negroponte is more likely to be the U.S. workhorse, guiding the young government and looking out for a vital investment.
"If we're turning political decision-making over to the Iraqis, that should in theory make the role of the [U.S.] ambassador somewhat less overwhelming," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at National Defense University. "The reality will be that our ambassador there will have a fairly influential hand."
But other diplomats tied Negroponte's appointment to his contacts at the United Nations, which Bush now hopes will play a larger role in Iraq. Some expressed concern that Washington is trying to dump its Iraq problems on the U.N. "There's no question that the U.N. is the only way out of Iraq," said a Security Council diplomat.
Despite the controversy, Democratic and Republican congressional sources said Negroponte is likely to be confirmed easily, in contrast to his nomination in 2001 as ambassador to the United Nations.
Negroponte's confirmation hearing to the U.N. post triggered a fierce struggle over his human rights record. That fray ended abruptly after the Sept. 11 attacks made it vital for the United States to have an ambassador in place.
Human rights advocates charged that during his tenure in Honduras, Negroponte underplayed human rights abuses by death squads to ensure that the country would continue to serve as a base for U.S.-backed Contras who were fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
He denies the charge, but it lingers.
"There are serious unanswered questions about his complicity with the atrocities in Honduras and the war in Nicaragua , which happened under his nose, about which he claimed ignorance," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which opposed Negroponte's nomination to the U.N.
"The issue of whether U.S.-sponsored forces avoid complicity in atrocities, while not at the forefront of concern [in] the diplomatic corridors of the U.N., is going to be a major issue facing him if he goes to Baghdad," Roth said.
"This is something the Senate should push him on, and seek assurances that he has learned the ugly lessons of his past tenure in Honduras. It's absolutely still relevant."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of three of the 17 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who voted against Negroponte's nomination, took a noncommittal stance Monday. "I am looking forward to asking Ambassador Negroponte his views on the path to success in Iraq," she said.
During the U.N. nomination process, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the expected Democratic nominee for president, had also expressed concerns about Negroponte's role in Honduras.
A spokeswoman for his presidential campaign said Monday the campaign had no immediate comment about Negroponte's nomination.
As head of the U.S. mission in Baghdad, which one senior State Department official called an "embassy on steroids," Negroponte would have the delicate job of trying to support a caretaker Iraqi government that is certain to be considered illegitimate by many Iraqis until elections are held in 2005.
He would have to manage a stalled reconstruction effort amid a stubborn insurgency and coordinate policy with an often-fractured administration in Washington, U.S. military forces in Iraq, the United Nations and U.S. allies.
Many diplomats said Bush was fortunate that Negroponte accepted the job.