Diplomatic Veteran

John Negroponte on ISIS: ‘There Are Difficult Choices Ahead’

In a wide-ranging interview, the ex-ambassador and director of national intelligence talks about serving in 1980s Honduras, how the U.S. is responsible for the rise of ISIS, and more.

“Even to someone who was ambassador during the wars that were going on” in the 1980s, reports of migrant children being murdered after being deported home to Honduras are “truly shocking,” says John Negroponte.

“The place wasn’t a Jeffersonian paradise,” he says of his time as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, but refugees were coming to to the country, they weren’t fleeing like are today, and there was “no reign of terror.”

Historical accounts differ over Honduran “death squads” and Negroponte’s knowledge of the human rights abuses committed by the government there as he carried out the Reagan-era policies that targeted the leftist government in neighboring Nicaragua. But setting aside the politics and the Cold War machinations, there is no disputing Negroponte’s deeply personal connection to the country where he served from 1981 to 1985.

He and his wife, Diane, have five children from Honduras, two adopted during his posting and three more the couple added in subsequent years, “until I had to forbid my wife from going back to Honduras,” he says with a laugh. The children, three girls and two boys, range in age from 32 down to 21. All five joined the family as infants. “They are not cultural Hondurans, they are ethnic Hondurans, and they look Honduran,” he told The Daily Beast. “But they’ve been pretty much brought up as American kids who were born into a Foreign Service family.”

Born in London to wealthy Greek parents, educated at Exeter Academy and Yale University, Negroponte dropped out of Harvard Law School to join the Foreign Service. Honduras was his first posting as ambassador. “I love the Spanish culture, and I have a bit of a view about what’s happening,” he says. He traces the deportation of gang members back to Central America in the 1990s for creating a security situation today that is far worse than what he saw in the 1980s, when revolutionary uprisings were challenging Reagan’s Cold War anti-communism.

“It’s just absolutely heartbreaking,” he says. “I would be inclined on the side of being generous toward them [the young migrants]. Instead of rushing the adjudication process, parole would be more appropriate. I also understand this could serve as a magnet for more to come,” he adds.

Negroponte has spent 44 years in government service, serving as ambassador in multiple posts, including Iraq and the United Nations, where he was appointed by President George W. Bush. Throughout that time, he says, the Central American and Latin American hemisphere is seen as “something of a sideline, it doesn’t rise to the level of the Middle East or Asia. It’s been neglected. It’s gotten some attention because of Castro and Cuba, but in the overall hierarchy of foreign policy and geopolitical priorities, it’s not high enough.” Compared to the billions the United States sends to Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt, “Central America, as close as it is, deserves more to help them get out of their economic morass.”

Appointed by Bush as the first director of national intelligence, Negroponte thinks the beheading of American journalist James Foley is “a turning point” for President Obama, forcing him into “a re-focus of attention on terrorism.” Asked if the United States is at all responsible for the rise of ISIS, the self-described Islamic State, he says without hesitation, “Because we did not do anything in Syria.”

Reminded that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was held by U.S. forces in Iraq when Negroponte was ambassador, and that when Baghdadi was released he reportedly told his captors, Americans from New York, “See you in New York,” an expression perhaps more ominous than a simple farewell, Negroponte replied: “I knew he’d been detained, I didn’t know that [the reference to New York]. As luck would have it, he came back with a vengeance. We can’t run around feeling guilty about that. It’s one of those things that happen.”

Recalling the pressure he was under as the U.S. swept up detainees, he recounted, “These tribal sheiks would call us and say, ‘Release this guy, I know him.’ We’d say, but he was captured with gunpowder on his hands…The pressure was intense, and we let some people go. They were connected politically. A Sunni president would call—they would get all the way to him—he’d say, ‘This guy’s not a terrorist.’ Sometimes you get these pressures and sometimes you give in to them.”

He doesn’t recall any discussions about Baghdadi, who must have seemed just another run-of-the-mill extremist. “I remember Mr. Zarqawi,” he offered, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq who died in a targeted killing in June 2006. “They finally got him, and they’ll get him, too,” Negroponte added, referring to the executioner in the chilling video distributed by ISIS.

Speaking as someone who’s been there, and has seen the pitfalls and the unintended consequences, Negroponte concluded the interview saying: “There are difficult choices ahead. How do you limit the choices to counterterrorism, and not get involved in nation building and boots on the ground? How do you avoid reinventing the previous situation?”