|Eagleton's advice: Travel light while
witnessing history of world
Ambassador William Eagleton has a
unique method of judging luggage.
In a 50-year diplomatic career with
the U.S. Foreign Service, State
Department and United Nations, he has
traveled more than most people on this
planet. Yet it was not globe-trotting
that imprinted his baggage preferences.
It was international terrorism.
Years ago, Eagleton lost one of his
suitcases when it was used to hold the $1
million ransom for a hijacking to
Algeria. He still has the smaller leather
satchel he was given to replace it and
"half-million-size" bag to be
far better than its million-dollar- size
"A million dollars is a little
heavy, (although) you can put it in one
suitcase," he says thoughtfully.
"The second hijacking, I sent word
back while it was under way. I said,
'Bring two smaller suitcases because the
person taking it away obviously isn't
going to check it in...' I remember the
first one, dragging the million dollars
in a suitcase. It was not easy."
If a six-hour interview is any
indication, that's Eagleton - wry, dry
and understated. He may say little about
his role, but name the hot spots in world
history for the last five decades,
particularly in the Middle East, and he
was there: Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Cyprus,
Libya, Syria, Sarajevo.
Count his stint in the Navy during
World War II, during which his father,
Navy Capt. William Eagleton, commanded
one of the ships sent to sign the peace
treaty at Tokyo Bay, and you can make it
six decades as an eyewitness to world
Former U.S. Secretary of State Warren
Christopher was at Tokyo Bay with Capt.
Eagleton. In fact, 19-year-old Ensign
Christopher was once assigned to
"baby-sit" young Dick Eagleton,
the ambassador's brother, on an outing to
a dog track while the USS Tomahawk was
undergoing repairs. Considering
Christopher was later Dick Eagleton's
boss, and occasionally interacted with
Bill Eagleton Jr. during various stints
in government service, he has a unique
vantage point on this family.
"Ambassador Eagleton is a very
distinguished Arabist, one of those very
unusual people who have grown up with
great expertise in the Arab world,"
Christopher says. "He has had the
toughest assignments, and I think that
makes him a particularly good subject for
your project ... He takes it in stride.
He is very modest. And that's one of the
reasons he was very popular in the
Last of great pashas
Seven years ago, Eagleton was one of a
handful of people profiled in a cover
story for The Atlantic Monthly called
"Tales from the Bazaar."
Written just after the Gulf War, the idea
was to assess the Arabists - those who
specialized in Middle Eastern diplomacy -
and whether or not they should be
Robert D. Kaplan spent 30 pages trying
to untangle the complicated politics in
one of the most complex regions of the
world. A good chunk of his analysis
focused on Eagleton.
"The last of the great
pashas" in the State Department is
how Arabist Richard Murphy described
Eagleton to Kaplan, who seemed equally
taken with the former Peorian.
"At sixty-five, he has eyes that
still appear young and full of
enthusiasm: they are the eyes of a
traveler who has retained a youthful
disposition by means of constant
adventure, challenge, and cultural
stimulation," Kaplan wrote.
"Eagleton is a true spiritual
descendant of the early
Kaplan mentioned Eagleton's deep and
varied experiences in the field, his
study of local cultures and the two books
he had written - one on Kurdish carpets
and the other a political history of a
short- lived Kurdish republic. ("It
has a sad ending," Eagleton says.
"They executed everyone.")
At the same time, Kaplan allowed
unnamed critics in the Reagan
administration to savage the ambassador
by saying he couldn't "apply"
that knowledge to political analysis, so
they mocked his messages. The implication
was that he had "gone native."
Eagleton is exquisitely aware that
being called an Arabist is a double-edged
sword. It almost cost him the
ambassadorship to Syria in 1984.
"I had been running embassies for
many years before that - but fortunately
not as ambassador - as charge d'affaires
or chief of the interests section, which
meant that I simply had to get through a
panel, an assignment panel in the state
department," he says. "Once you
are chosen to be an ambassador, you have
to have the consent of the Senate."
Combine day-to-day American politics
with the ultra- charged Middle East and
anyone immersed in Arab culture can make
some factions suspicious. Journalist Jack
Anderson wrote a column charging Eagleton
was "soft on terrorism." (At
the time, Eagleton was quoted as
responding, "Does anybody believe
what Jack Anderson says?") It took
personal contact with some of the
senators, and lobbying by many Jewish
friends, before Eagleton was confirmed.
"It's the type of thing that
happens all too often, for whatever
reason, sometimes having nothing to do
with the qualifications of the person
chosen," Eagleton says with a
professional shrug of the shoulders.
Diplomacy and terrorism
Although Eagleton downplays the more
dangerous aspects of his career - no more
dangerous than "walking down a
street in Peoria," he says of his
stint in bombed-out Sarajevo - they are
there. Day-to- day life in an embassy
might keep a stately pace, particularly
earlier in his career when communication
was much slower, but there is also the
potential for violence.
In South Yemen, in 1967, even Eagleton
concedes there were several "rather
dicey experiences." His second wife,
Kay, was pregnant and trying to join him
there, despite formidable obstacles.
(Thirty-two years later, Eagleton still
lights up at the mention of her name. He
credits Kay with much of his success,
particularly her help with his second
book.) Through the embassy windows,
Eagleton could see commandos and Arabs
exchanging gunfire. Several British had
been shot walking in the street nearby.
Years earlier, he occasionally carried
a gun in Kurdistan, but "it was more
something to show after dinner, you would
compare weapons with the Kurdish friends,
shoot at beer cans, that sort of
thing." South Yemen was "rather
"I was impressed by someone who
told me that nobody with a revolver ...
in their hand had ever been shot and
killed," he says. "So, as we
got out of the automobile, it looked
rather silly, I suppose, but we actually
had, I was carrying the gun in my hand
going in and out of shops and whatever. I
was never shot as a result, so that did
Later, in 1979, there were several
demonstrations against the American
embassy in Libya. Eagleton was prepared.
"Well, maybe there wasn't any
grave danger," he muses now.
"but when they come at the embassy
with battering rams and commandos who can
climb up the facade of the building using
electric cables... we had a pretty hot
reception for them.
"That is, we had grease and oil
on some of the steps between, we all had
a plan on how to get into a secure area,
and then how to get out through a secret
escape way through some other apartments.
And then we had some tear gas. We did not
have Marines, we did this on our own. But
they were pounding for quite
Even now, Eagleton is amused. He had
ordered the staff to shred and burn all
sensitive materials. By the time the
demonstrators broke in, they were
triumphantly carrying off nothing more
important than applications for visas.
Days later, another crowd of
demonstrators burned the French embassy
to the ground. Eagleton followed his wife
to the United States, returning only to
close the American embassy.
"Of course, we're not back
yet," he notes.
Five years after that, in 1984,
Eagleton made his first impression on
Kaplan. The reporter was in Baghdad,
covering the arrest of an Illinois
engineer named Robert Spurling. Iraqi
officials had detained Spurling at the
airport, accused him of being a spy, and
sent his family on without him.
According to Kaplan, despite
appeals," Iraqi officials refused to
admit they had the unfortunate American
for three months.
"In October, the Iraqis delivered
Spurling to Eagleton's doorstep,"
Kaplan later wrote. "Spurling had
been subjected to electric-shock torture
in his genitals and elsewhere. He had
been beaten with weighted fists and
wooden bludgeons. His fingernails and
toenails had been ripped out and his
fingers and toes crushed. He had been
kept in solitary confinement on a
Kaplan gives Eagleton the credit for
Spurling's release. Eagleton demurs.
"Why they were suspicious and
what ever happened, you don't know in
these cases," he says. "We
always take the position that our guys
are innocent and as far as I know he
was.... I don't know what credit is
available. We all do what we can."
Working for the U.N.
James Baker didn't work with Eagleton
all that closely when he was U.S.
Secretary of State, but he is one of the
people who recommended the ambassador for
his current U.N. posting.
"He has had an excellent record
in the Foreign Service, especially in
Arab countries," Baker says from his
And former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of
Illinois also thinks highly of Eagleton.
"I was always very favorably
impressed by both his ability and the way
he conducted himself," Simon says.
In 1988, Eagleton took his first
position with the United Nations, in
Vienna. As a deputy commissioner general,
he oversaw services for a group of
"It provided the educational
service, some welfare, no longer tents
but still temporary- like shelters for
the most part, awaiting the
outcome," he says. "It's still
there. This is an organization that had
been going a long time, very well-
Towards the spring of 1994, an
internal re-shuffling had left Eagleton
without a spot, when it was decided that
the United Nations had a particular need
in Bosnia. After a bit of tinkering,
Eagleton became the "U.N. Special
Coordinator for the Restoration of
Essential Services in Sarajevo" - a
position others have referred to, more
simply, as "mayor."
"It was thought there would be a
possibility, not of rebuilding, but of
getting the gas, water, electricity, some
of the transport and all that
going," he says. "So I had to
go out, I had to raise the money for it,
do a plan of action and report back to
(the U.N.) Security Council, etc.... the
total thing was about $100 million."
At that point, in 1996, Eagleton
retired and thought he would never work
in public service again. In the spring of
this year, Baker and others intervened to
bring him back to oversee an election in
Western Sahara. There is a section of
land on the border between Algeria and
Morocco which has been disputed for
years, despite a 1991 settlement plan.
"It's the second-longest-running
dispute on the U.N. agenda, with Cyprus
being the first," Baker says.
"Many people will tell you it's
insoluble. I mean, this has been going on
The United Nations is responsible for
setting up the voting list, according to
Eagleton, "and of course who votes
will largely determine who wins."
The vote had been set for next summer,
but Eagleton thinks it may take longer.
Although he seems pleased to be back at
work, he wants the matter resolved.
"I would be delighted if we could
have a quick end because it's a dispute
that needs solving," he says.
"There are refugees. There are
people sitting out there in the desert
for 25 years waiting for a
Baker thinks it a good match between a
need and the expertise to solve it.
That's why he's involved.
"You really almost have an
obligation to try and do something,"
Baker says. "That's why I'm in it,
and I daresay that's why Bill Eagleton is
Reprinted from Google
citing the The Peoria Journal Star