Remembering Bill Eagleton

By Michael Rubin:

I was saddened to learn of Ambassador Bill Eagleton’s death this past January.  I first met Eagleton in 1996 in Iran.  I was finishing my doctoral dissertation and was at the Armenian museum in Isfahan hunting for the grave of a British telegraph worker who had died a century before. Eagleton, hearing my poor American-accented Persian but intrigued by the conversation, approached me and struck up a conversation. In those days, as now, Americans in the Islamic Republic were few and far between.  We had a great conversation about Iranian history, but I never suspected that I would ever see the retired old ambassador again.

I was wrong.  Six years later, shortly after I began work at the Pentagon, my boss asked me to look over a report regarding tribal relations in northern Iraq that had just been written by a long retired ambassador. It was excellent, and I called Eagleton to tell him as much.    I had not remembered the name of the ambassador whom I had met in Isfahan, and so it was only when I saw Eagleton at the security gate of the Pentagon that I realized that we had met before.  We had a great chat, and I learned more about Eagleton’s background.

Born in Peoria, Illinois in 1926, Eagleton deferred college to join the U.S. Navy during World War II, before graduating from Yale University in 1948, the same year as did future president George H.W. Bush.  In 1949, Eagleton joined the Foreign Service.  Beyond service in Washington, his overseas postings include Damascus (1951-53), Beirut (1953-54), Kirkuk (1954-55), and Tabriz (1959-61). He was in Mauritania in 1962, chargé d’affaires in South Yemen (1967-1969), the chief U.S. diplomat in Algeria (1969-74), Libya (1978-80), and Iraq (1980-84). After his ambassadorship in Syria ended in 1988, Eagleton joined the United Nations, first as deputy commissioner for Palestinian Refugees (1988–94), then as Special Coordinator for Sarajevo (1994–1996), and finally Director of UN Operations in Western Sahara (1999)

In the run-up to Operation Desert Storm, Eagleton became a frequent visitor to the Pentagon. While he had spent his career in the State Department, many of the diplomats there resented an elder retiree looking over their shoulder.  Eagleton would often sit in my office, read over documents, challenge assumptions, and offer suggestions. Eagleton was already approaching 80 years old, but was more energetic than men half his age, running up and down multiple flights of stairs and around the rings of the Pentagon.

When hostilities began, Eagleton formally rejoined the State Department as a special advisor for northern Iraq and I did not see him for several months.  But on my first evening in Baghdad in July 2003, I bumped into Eagleton with the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative in Iraq. Eagleton bade De Mello farewell and I joined him and some Kurdish friends for a wonderful masgouf dinner along the Tigris River, my first venture outside the Green Zone in which so many American officials imprisoned themselves.  Over subsequent weeks, I saw Eagleton often. We drove around Baghdad, and ventured with Kurdish friends absent any security convoy to Kirkuk, Lalish, and other Kurdish areas that I had been on the wrong side of the Green Line of and unable to visit during my first year in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Even as age took its toll on his body, Eagleton’s mind remained sharp. In Kirkuk, where he had served a half century before, he told aspiring politicians how their grandfathers had handled similar problems.

He was a living repository of Iraqi history. He was America’s senior American diplomat in Baghdad during Ronald Reagan’s first term: it was Eagleton who reported that Saddam’s 1980 invasion of Iran was no mere border skirmish, and declassified documents show that it was he who arranged the infamous 1983 meeting between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld, albeit on the orders of those above him.

Eagleton also had a sharp wit. During all his time stationed in Iraq, he frequently traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of his private passion: Kurdish carpets. Visiting Erbil in 2003, he met a carpet dealer from whom he had made purchases two decades before. “Do you realize that whenever I sold you a carpet, the mukhabarat detained me for a few days?” one carpet dealer asked him.  Eagleton assured him that he was aware of what had occurred but that, “For the price you sold me those carpets, I assumed you found it worth it.”

While Eagleton tragically lost much of his carpet collection in a fire, his 1988 study of Kurdish carpets – a rare book, albeit one replete with photos of his collections – remains the top resource in the field. I have encountered Eagleton’s book in carpet shops and museums not only in Erbil and Baghdad, and Washington and London, but also in Istanbul, Ankara, Tehran, Kabul, and even Tokyo.

After I left the Pentagon and Eagleton returned home to New Mexico, we kept in occasional touch, by phone, email and, occasionally, in person. We often chatted about Kurdish politics. Eagleton’s dispassionate analysis led him to recognize the problems afflicting the Kurdistan Regional Government, even if he did not always agree with the stridency of some of my columns.

He was incorruptible and a gentleman. He never joined the ranks of more recent American diplomats and military officers by seeking to cash in his connections and his position for consulting positions or contracts.

As such, Eagleton remained a true friend to Kurds and Kurdistan. His principle was not muddied by business or finance. After each retirement, he neither sought to ingratiate himself to corrupt leaders nor would he turn a blind eye to their abuses. Eagleton should be missed, not only in the United States, but also in Iraqi Kurdistan.

3 Responses to Remembering Bill Eagleton
  1. Butan
    July 27, 2011 | 19:19

    I was never aware of his loss. My God bless his soul and rest him in peace. It was the late Eagleton who wrote a book about the Mahabad Republic—The History of the Kurdish Republic. Without his support, much of the republic’s history would’ve lost.

    • Editor
      July 27, 2011 | 19:36

      Yes, what an excellent book, and legacy, that is.

  2. Peter M
    September 30, 2014 | 17:35

    Thank you Michael for capturing the spirit of Ambassador Eagleton so well. He was a true gentlemen and statesmen. I was honored to be his military liaison officer. It was amazing to experience firsthand how widely know, respected and loved he was in Northern Iraq.

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