Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass: The American consul

As someone with decades of experience in resolving political deadlock, former US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass might just have the skills to break the stand-off over issues here, writes Jim Dee

Richard Haass
Richard Haass

Between now and December, Richard Haass, a man with decades of high-level international diplomatic experience, will try to craft deadlock-breaking proposals on issues such as the parades impasse, flags and emblems, and how best to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

It's a tight timeline. But, having spent much of his adult life engaged in efforts to crack deadlocked conflicts, Haass might just have the skill-set for the job.

Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Haass attained a liberal arts Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, before moving on to earn Masters and Doctoral degrees in philosophy at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

In 1974, he cut his political teeth as a Democrat working an internship on Capitol Hill for Rhode Island Democrat senator Claiborne Pell while on a break from Oxford.

Back in Britain, Haass later |recalled he watched the Labour Party's radicalisation in the mid-1970s and, ultimately, he became attracted to the ideas of a rising Margaret Thatcher. By the end of the decade, he classed himself a “moderate Republican”.

His road to decades of governmental work began when he |delivered an academic paper in London on the changing role of the US Congress in foreign affairs after the Vietnam War. Some impressed Pentagon brass in attendance offered him a job, which he promptly took.

Haass's focus was the Persian Gulf and developing plans for a rapid deployment force that later morphed into today's CENTCOM — the US military central command for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and Iraq and Afghanistan.

After a year at the Pentagon, he joined Ronald Reagan's administration, working in the State |Department's bureau of politico-military affairs and then in the |bureau of European affairs.

It was there, between 1983 and 1985, that Haass had his first go at trying to crack a fraught political stalemate, this time between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots on the divided Mediterranean island.

During a lengthy 2004 interview with the George HW Bush (aka Bush Snr) Oral History Project, Haass said that his ultimately unsuccessful efforts in Cyprus had shown him that incremental steps — and not necessarily a dramatic breakthrough — can also build progress in negotiations.

“Basically, find a solution, or mini-packages,” said Haass, “and it's very analogous to the Middle East, where sometimes people say, ‘Let's go to Camp David’, or, at other times, they'll say, ‘Let's go step-by-step with a road map’ and what have you.”

Haass said that Cyprus also helped prepare him for later |missions in Kashmir, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Northern Ireland.

After Cyprus came a teaching stint at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, before he signed to work on Senator Bob Dole's ill-fated bid for the White House in 1987.

Following Dole's loss, Haass signed on with the Republican who won the party's nomination in 1988 and the White House, George HW Bush.

Haass acted as Bush Snr's special assistant, as well as senior staff director of the National Security Council from 1989 to 1993.

Bill Clinton's 1992 victory spurred an exit from government for Haass, who then became director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institute, one of Washington's top think-tanks.

While there, Haass wrote about the importance of business promotion in US foreign policy. He was also highly critical of America's use of unilateral economic sanctions, which he said almost |always “hurt American economic interests without changing the target's behaviour for the better”, while costing American firms |billions of dollars in lost profits.

The return of a Bush to the White House in 2001 also brought Haass in tow, who took up residency as the director of policy and planning at the State Department, while also becoming a top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The year 2001 also saw Haass appointed as the White House's special envoy to Northern Ireland. He was visiting Belfast when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

Viewed as a centrist, Haass's thinking was out of step with that of the leading neoconservatives — vice-president Dick Cheney, deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon official Douglas Feith — whose influence reigned supreme in the early years of ‘Dubya’ Bush's presidency.

The neocons didn't fully trust Haass, in part due to his 1997 book The Reluctant Sheriff, in which he'd written: “The United States cannot compel others to become more democratic” — something neocons fervently |believed that the US could, and should, do. After 9/11, the neocons' rising power, and Secretary Powell's increased marginalisation, left Haass increasingly uneasy.

The push for an invasion of Iraq also meant that issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Haass believed was key to regional peace, were pushed to the back-burner in the run-up to the Iraq War.

As the war drums beat and Haass's frustration continued to build, he accepted the post as president of the prestigious New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in 2003. He's been at the CFR's helm ever since.

Now Richard Haass is back on the Northern Ireland scene. During his previous incarnation, he needed to get up to speed on the peace process, which he did quickly, according to a Capital Hill source.

“He didn't have the experience in Northern Ireland that a lot of members of Congress had. But he did come up to listen to |members and get the advice of members,” said the source. “And he was always successful during his tenure as the envoy. So I think he grew into the role.

“I would say he was held in high regard by the members of the bi-partisan Friends of Ireland |caucus. He would get high marks from everyone he worked with.”

Haass is known as a “pragmatist” and a “realist” in negotiations. In his 2004 interview for the George HW Bush Oral History Project, he downplayed the role of building personal relationships.

“The personal relationships can be useful at the margins, but at the end of the day people are not going to make difficult decisions because they like you or they feel comfortable with you,” he said.

“They're going to make the |decisions because, on fairly cold calculations, they are either better off if they do it, or worse off if they don't do it.

“Take Northern Ireland, which I worked on the last few years. I made more than a dozen trips. So, yes, it's useful that I had a working relationship with Gerry Adams and other people.

“But I still couldn't get Gerry to do some of the things I wanted; it didn't matter that we have a good working relationship.”

Mitchell Reiss, who succeeded Haass as the White House's special envoy to Northern Ireland, said that Haass won't be acting as a |referee in his new role.

“An outsider can bring a fresh perspective, to be seen as more of a neutral party, and therefore be a trusted interlocutor — not to mediate, which would suggest splitting the difference — but rather facilitate. And there is a big difference. And it's not really even to negotiate.”

Reiss said that trying to |facilitate movement in a situation where people have dug in their heels on both sides can be “enormously frustrating”.

“That's why people like George Mitchell deserve all the praise they get. Because he earned it.”

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