'The Rudest Man I Ever Met'

'The Rudest Man I Ever Met'

John Boykin, a writer and communications consultant in San Francisco, has written a clear, detailed and well-organized tribute to one of the Foreign Service's heroes, Philip Habib. Boykin's tale of how Habib dislodged PLO fighters from war-torn Beirut conveys the excitement of a novel, but without distorting what was a most portentous reality. The extraction of the PLO from Lebanon could have turned into a massacre of the PLO by the Israeli Defense Forces and the Phalange militia, and it could have provoked a wider conflict involving Syria. Instead, thanks to Habib's drive, clear vision and the support of President Reagan, the PLO was on its way to Tunis on September 1, 1982. A grateful republic recognized Habib's work: in a White House ceremony, President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making Habib the first career diplomat ever to receive the nation's highest civilian award.

Boykin captures well the twists and turns of the frustrating reality of the Middle East and, more clearly than any other book I have read, also the process of conflict management--how the right individual can, for a time, leave a mark on Middle Eastern realities. The core of the book deals with Habib's 1981-83 mission to Lebanon, Israel and Syria, describing in detail the PLO's extraction from Beirut as a first step toward further reduction of tensions in the area. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and greater domestic autonomy for the Lebanese were supposed to ensue, but these steps never came to pass--for reasons beyond Habib's ability to influence or control. Lebanon's strong man, President Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated; his successor was weak and pliant before Israeli demands; and Syria's dictator, Hafez al-Asad, the final arbiter of events in Lebanon, opposed Washington's plans for the region. Throughout much of this period, moreover, the prime mover in Israeli policy toward Lebanon was Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon sought nothing less than an Israeli protectorate over Lebanon. His duplicity, nitpicking, and constant challenges to Habib would have broken a less doughty and pugnacious U.S. representative.

Although Habib gave as well as he got, his protracted mission--one of high-impact, no-pads diplomacy--took its toll. Over time, like any other tool, Habib was worn out. The Lebanese felt guilty in his presence, the Israelis resented his aggressive expertise, and the Syrians were always poised with their veto. Habib himself told the President and the Secretary of State, George Shultz, "I've run out my string."

Habib's exit came quickly. Secretary Shultz was eager to nail down a diplomatic success. He came to the area in late April 1983 and, on May 17, presided over an Israeli-Lebanese agreement. Shultz took much pride in "his agreement." U.S. diplomats, however, including Habib and the brilliant, blunt-spoken ambassador to Syria, Robert Paganelli, told Shultz that they regarded the agreement as so much waste paper--which it soon proved to be. Deputy National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane was then sent to the area to try to salvage something from Shultz's effort, but he had not mastered his brief. McFarlane was humiliated and savaged by Asad, while Habib (who had no advance warning of the McFarlane trip) submitted his resignation.

What judgments does Boykin help us to reach, both on Habib's work and on more expansive themes?

Habib brought a distinct personal style to U.S. Middle East diplomacy. As the son of a Syrian immigrant, he determined to make his mark in the Foreign Service by being the hardest-working, best-informed, most clear-spoken officer in the entire Service. Through a series of standard assignments, including that of political counselor in Vietnam, his judgment was prescient, and his bosses much appreciated advice and analysis that was blunt, expert, and that never ducked the all-important question, "Gentlemen, what are we going to do about it?" Americans can forever be proud that when the Korean military was about to make Korea's future president, Kim Dae-jung, literally "walk the plank", U.S. Ambassador Philip Charles Habib was there to stop them. Later, as Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, Habib's clarity and directness were a refreshing astringent to the many anfractuous, dilatory and self-protective "action memorandums" making their way to the Department's Seventh Floor.

Habib was also the U.S. government's consummate diplomatic troubleshooter, along with the late, great General Vernon Walters. Having played host to both these great men, I can honestly say that I would many times rather have had a visit by General Walters than one from Ambassador Habib. Walters was unfailingly supportive of U.S. ambassadors. He was the essence of good judgment, coupled with tact and good manners that extended even to the smallest children in the house. Through him spoke not only an administration, but decades of 20th-century American history. Habib, on the other hand, was described by one ambassador's wife as "the rudest man I ever met."

As one of the republic's best "special emissaries", Habib's successes and failures show the limitation of high-powered ad hoc diplomacy. Special emissaries can be effective if they receive strong support from the highest levels and if they are given clear "goals and objectives." There is another critical prerequisite, too: that their mission not be so prolonged that the novelty of their presence wears off, and they slide into the tar pit with the other local players. (One recalls Secretary of State Warren Christopher's interminable and fruitless shuttles through the Middle East that included 27 visits to Damascus--toward the end of which, one member of his party quipped, "The hotel stopped changing the sheets for us.") The Special Emissary's focus, of course, should also be inclusive--it should take in an area-wide issue, whose parts may fall within the area of responsibility of several regional embassies.

Looking back, one may fairly conclude that Habib--presented with an impossibly difficult Middle East conundrum--achieved results that, although partial, constituted a personal as well as a collective triumph. And in the Middle East, personality counts for a lot. Habib came with a reputation for expertise and personal toughness. He was also known as a straight shooter--someone who would give the same unvarnished opinion to each of the parties to the conflict. He was also an optimist who infected his colleagues with the belief that something could always be done about "it." He was pragmatic, but impatient with too much "laying groundwork." He'd say, "Forget the groundwork. Let's see if there isn't a little point of agreement we can reach", and then: "ok, let's see if we can build upon that."

Above all, Habib was tireless--and one important lesson we can draw from Boykin's account is that to be a successful Foreign Service Officer and a successful negotiator, you have to be enduring. Negotiating is as much a physical as it is an intellectual activity. Finally, one can say that Habib, without giving up anything of substance, worked well with Arabs. They found him quick and congenial. "Dammo khafif" ("His blood is warm"), they would say, meaning that he had the personal skills to be accepted even when he told his interlocutors frank and disagreeable things.

Habib seems to have had little life apart from his 16-hour workdays and his seven-day weeks. In thirty years he took only four vacations. The dinner table was Habib's solace and relaxation, but its excesses contributed to his recurrent heart problems and, ultimately, to his death in 1992. Habib gathered around himself a brilliant stable of younger officers, including Richard Holbrooke, Chris Ross, Frank Wisner, John Helble, Tony Lake, Peter Tarnoff, John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker and Ed Djeredjian. "Phil's boys" admired him unconditionally. Habib encouraged open give and take. His aides found the work always gripping, and knew their boss never asked more of them than he was prepared to give himself.

The story is told that one evening Habib's special assistant, John Helble, brought in a memorandum for him to sign. Helble had been working seven-day weeks for a year and a half. "Is it all right?" Helble asked. Habib replied, "I signed it, didn't I?" Helble responded, "Phil, do you realize that in 18 months, you've never said I was doing anything right?" Habib: "Do you think you'd still be here if you weren't?" Elsewhere Boykin quotes Habib as saying, "If you go home at five, and your wife is happy, you're not doing your job." One hears the voice and glimpses the style of Henry Kissinger, Habib's great friend.

Habib was also supported by a cadre of more senior and exceptionally able Foreign Service Officers: his deputy Morris Draper (my predecessor as political chief in Amman), Brandon Grove in Jerusalem, Robert Paganelli in Damascus, Bob Dillon in Beirut, Sam Lewis in Tel Aviv, and Nicholas Veliotes and Charles Hill in Washington. At home, and at each stop abroad, Habib could count on support and advice from colleagues who were as good as the U.S. government has produced for any region.

In the larger scheme of things, though, were Habib's accomplishments lasting? He may have reduced tensions between Israel and Lebanon by removing the PLO and its fighters to Tunis. But Lebanese political space was soon filled by the even more militant Hamas and Hizballah who still bedevil us--and Israel--today. Looking back, it seems clear that more lasting progress toward regional peace could only have come from a stronger and more persistent involvement by the U.S. government at its highest levels--including the President. But even then, there is something to the theory of ripeness: outsiders, no matter how strong and clever, cannot force local protagonists to make peace if they insist otherwise. After the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and the October bombing of the Marine Corps barracks--in which 241 Marines were killed--there was a real aversion in Washington to a closer engagement with a set of issues that offered only conflict, political risk, much acrimony, and not much likelihood of success.

Essay Types: Book Review