Thursday, July 25, 2024

Bill Richardson stars as a freelance ambassador for dictators

Days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the US government was urging Americans to stay away from Russia. That’s when Bill Richardson boarded the plane to Moscow.

Richardson, a former congressman, governor and cabinet member from New Mexico, pursued his passion for freelance diplomacy with a dangerous foreign government. In this case, he traveled to the Russian capital in an effort to free Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who the State Department said was wrongfully imprisoned. Mr. In a call to Reid’s parents, Mr. Richardson’s aide said his boss was on “guerrilla duty,” they would later recall.

Two months later, in a prisoner exchange with Russia, Mr. Reid was acquitted, which Mr. It’s unclear whether the gruff politician has made a decisive difference — something his parents say wouldn’t have been possible without Richardson’s help. Quiet negotiations by the Biden administration.

Anyway, the Russian mission is a classic Bill Richardson. Until his death on Friday at the age of 75, Mr. Richardson developed a distinct specialty in foreign affairs, establishing himself as a diplomat who brutalized US presidents and other foreign leaders. Authorities may or may not deal directly.

In a statement on Saturday, President Biden called Mr. Trump “perhaps his most lasting legacy” to bring home dozens of imprisoned Americans. called Richardson’s work.

It’s a role Mr. Richardson is stylistically well-suited to. He had a knack for flattery, as well as a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor. I asked inside 2016 public appearance Asked how he became a middleman for the powerful, President Bill Clinton’s response: “Bad people like him,” he laughed, citing what he said.

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For decades, beginning in the 1990s, Mr. Richardson became known as a dictator whisperer, meeting with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and more than one member of North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty. Many of his expeditions are widely credited with winning the freedom of detained Americans who, for practical or political reasons, could not be freed through official channels.

He prided himself on knowing how to negotiate with proud, sometimes murderous men, and wrote a book entitled “How to Sweet Talk a Shark.” (“Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use a sense of humor. Let the other side save face,” he once told an audience.)

Mr. As well-intentioned as Richardson’s freelance bargain was, some U.S. officials have quietly complained in recent years that he conducted complicated official negotiations to free American prisoners.

Richardson operates from his nonprofit Center for Global Engagement — which, despite its impressive name, occupies a modest office space in downtown Santa Fe — Mr. by an increasing number of hostile governments.

He was drawn into the shadowy and morally fraught world of prisoner diplomacy as a New Mexico congressman in 1994, after a military helicopter pilot was shot down by North Korea and captured while on a training mission in the country’s demilitarized border zone. Pilot Mr. was part of Richardson, and the representative spent several days in Pyongyang trying to secure his release, as well as the remains of his downed co-pilot.

“I think the North Koreans were so sick of me that they gave me pilots because they wanted me out,” Mr. Richardson later joked.

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Mr. Clinton was impressed by his efforts, and Mr. Richardson called it “a domino effect,” and then Mr. Richardson was sent to places like Afghanistan and Sudan on sensitive missions.

Mr. Here’s a behind-the-scenes illustration of Richardson’s method Transcript of his July 1995 meeting In an effort approved by Clinton to free two American prisoners, Mr. He accompanied Husayn to Baghdad. (The transcript was one of hundreds of Iraqi documents captured years later by U.S. forces and released online by the Department of Defense.)

Mr. The transcript shows that Richardson has great respect for the Iraqi leader, noting that he voted against congressional authorization of the 1991 US military operation to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. He also joked that Baghdad’s hot summer weather reminded him of his native New Mexico.

Mr. Richardson told the Iraqi leader, “If my mission is to succeed, it must be done in great secrecy.” Although he was not an official ambassador of the Clinton administration, Mr. He added that Clinton was “very aware of my visit, and I have spoken to him several times.” Without mentioning specific benefits, Mr. Richardson, pardoning the two prisoners, Mr. He clarified that it would “create an atmosphere of goodwill in America” ​​for Hussain.

He joked that he was compensating for his party’s minority status in the Congress, and concluded by saying, “I apologize if I spoke for too long, though I promised not to.”

The pitch worked: Mr. Richardson brought the prisoners home. Hussain agreed. In response, according to the Iraqi government, Mr. Richardson left him a piece of handmade New Mexican pottery.

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Mr. Clinton, Mr. Appointing Richardson as his ambassador to the United Nations the following year, he said, “It carried out difficult and very delicate diplomacy around the world.” A few days earlier, Mr. Richardson had “hid in a rebel leader’s hut in Sudan, eating barbecued goat and negotiating the freedom of three hostages,” he marveled.

After leaving the national political scene as governor of New Mexico, Mr. Richardson resumed his focus on American hostages and prisoners overseas. But in recent years, his work has become increasingly independent of the US government. His role in U.S. negotiations with countries such as Iran (helped free Marine Michael White in 2020), Myanmar (helped negotiate the freedom of American journalist Danny Fenster in 2021) and Russia has caused tension. Trump and Biden administrations.

Mr. As in Reid’s case, Mr. Richardson met with the Russians – President Vladimir V. He brokered a deal to free two other Americans detained in Russia — WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan — including an oligarch close to Putin. , a former Marine. Ms. Griner was released as part of a prisoner swap in December, although, once again, US officials gave no indication that Richardson played a decisive role.

Speaking to CNN last year, Mr. Richardson dismissed talk that his freelance diplomacy would complicate work through official channels.

“There are a lot of nervous Nellies in government who think they know it all, and that’s not the case,” he said. “Look at my 30-year track record.”

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