June 8, 2011: Lawrence Eagleburger’s death on June 4 took away one of the giants of American diplomacy, as well as one of the great characters of the U.S. Foreign Service. Generations of U.S. diplomats were professionally reared on Eagleburger stories. He inspired terror, admiration and pride in more or less equal parts. His concern for South Asia was ordinarily limited, but he left his imprint – and some great stories – nonetheless.
Afghanistan in the years of Soviet occupation was a major policy priority for the United States, and hence an important item on the Eagleburger agenda. Howard Schaffer recalls traveling with him to a camp for Afghan mujahidin and refugees near the Khyber Pass in the early 1980s, where as undersecretary for political affairs he gave an unusually emotional speech that contrasted with the rather blasé attitude he displayed at his other stops in the subcontinent. He was genuinely moved by what he saw.
The limited nature of Larry’s interest in South Asia quickly resurfaced the next day, however, at an Islamabad dinner in his honor hosted by Ron Spiers, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. As senior Pakistan government officials and politicians eagerly sought his ear, Larry spent most of the evening in earnest conversation with the Yugoslav ambassador discussing that faraway Balkan country’s problems in the immediate post-Tito years. His American host could not have been amused. Nor were the Pakistanis.
For anyone who thinks of the State Department as bland and colorless, Larry was a perfect antidote, as he demonstrated in a 1991 meeting with the visiting Indian army chief. Those were the days before the big expansion in U.S.-India relations, so Indian generals were infrequent visitors. The Soviet Union was falling apart. The meeting had barely progressed beyond pleasantries and mutual throat-clearing when Eagleburger’s secretary, the redoubtable Millie, appeared in the doorway with a little note for her boss. With a characteristic roll of the eyes, Eagleburger asked to be excused to take a call from the newly-arrived U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Robert Strauss. He returned about five minutes later, thumped his cane a few times, and commented, “The things I do for my country. He wanted to ask me why he has to live in a house that looks like a run-down bordello.”
Some South Asian visitors brought out Larry’s inner thespian. One of those was the urbane and elegant Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, retired general and long-time foreign minister of Pakistan, master of seven or eight languages and an unforgettable presence on the diplomatic stage. Yaqub came to Washington as part of his worldwide round of farewell calls before leaving office. He eased himself into the visitor’s comfortable chair in Eagleburger’s office; Tezi Schaffer, pencil poised, perched on the stiff chair destined for the note-taker. What followed was a 20 minute performance, with the two principals trading beautifully crafted, almost literary observations on the state of the world, how China and Russia were managing their respective transitions. (Yaqub: “Don’t you think, Mr. Secretary, that Russia is having glasnost without perestroika, and China is having perestroika without glasnost?” Eagleburger: “I’m starting to get nostalgic for the Cold War.”)
Eagleburger could move the U.S. government’s recalcitrant system. When Bangladesh was submerged by floods in 1991, it was Eagleburger who managed to persuade the Defense Department to divert a helicopter carrier from the Persian Gulf to Dhaka on its way back to the Pacific. The cable of instructions to the skipper said, in a wonderful Pentagon expression, that the Defense Department was to “capture the costs.” Operation Sea Angel, as it was known, was one of the high points of U.S. relations with Bangladesh, a decisive demonstration of U.S. skill and good will.
And some Eagleburger traditions were more personal. Eagleburger officiated at Tezi Schaffer’s swearing in as ambassador to Sri Lanka. A few days before the event, his assistant called her secretary, to ask if there were any stories about Tezi that he could use in his remarks. This was a perilous request, given Eagleburger’s penchant for needling staff. In the end, he didn’t do too much damage to her reputation. But when he came to the side room to greet her family before the ceremony, he took one look at her sons, both then in their teens, and grumbled “They’re just like my kids. So much hair I can’t see their eyes.”
Howard and Teresita Schaffer