Habib, Philip Charles

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Habib, Philip Charles

(b. 25 February 1920 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 25 May 1992 in Puligny-Montrachet, France), career diplomat whose professionalism and negotiating skills influenced U.S. policy in Asia and the Middle East and won him the personal confidence of every secretary of state and president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Ronald Reagan.

The son of Alexander Habib, a grocer, and Mary Spiridon, Habib attended the University of Idaho, receiving a B.S. degree in 1942, and he earned a Ph.D. in agrarian economics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1952 in pursuit of a career in forestry. Between degrees he married Marjorie W. Slightam. The couple had two daughters. Habib also served in the army from 1942 to 1946, rising to the rank of captain.

Habib joined the State Department in 1949 and served at American embassies in Canada (1949–1951), New Zealand (1952-1954), Trinidad (1958-1960), and the Republic of Korea (1962–1965). His service in Vietnam changed his life and established his diplomatic career. As minister-counselor in Saigon (1965–1966), he was the chief political adviser to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., Habib served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs (1967-1969) and became the highest-ranking diplomatic official specializing in Vietnamese affairs. In March 1968 Habib had a profound impact on ending American involvement in Vietnam. Still a low-level bureaucrat, he risked his career by shocking Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and a distinguished group of senior presidential advisers known as the “wise men” with a pessimistic assessment that it would take at least five years for any substantial progress to occur in creating a viable noncommunist South Vietnamese government. His powerful argument influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to end the escalation of the ground war, halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and begin peace talks. Habib served as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace negotiations (1968–1971). As ambassador to the Republic of Korea (1971-1974) and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs (1974-1976), Habib became the State Department’s leading authority on Asian affairs.

In 1976 Habib became undersecretary of state for political affairs, the highest career position in the State Department, and shifted his focus to Middle East affairs. After suffering a near-fatal heart attack, one of several that eventually took his life, Habib officially retired from the State Department in 1978 but agreed to serve as special adviser to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance the following year.

Habib handled a number of difficult tasks for the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations with great skill. Under President Carter, Habib helped conduct the landmark Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel in September 1978, for which he received the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Service (1979). He also carried out the unpleasant task of explaining to the sultan of Oman why President Carter had used his country without prior consultation as a base for the aborted U.S. hostage rescue operation into Iran in April 1980. Habib continued his service as a diplomatic troubleshooter for the Reagan administration in the Middle East, the Philippines, and Central America. His upbringing as a Lebanese Maronite Christian in a predominately Jewish neighborhood in New York City provided him with an acute understanding of the complexities of ethnic strife in the Middle East and influenced his efforts to reduce tensions in the region. In 1981 his shuttle diplomacy averted an Israeli-Syrian confrontation over Lebanon. After the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Habib negotiated a cease-fire that permitted the Palestinian Liberation Organization to leave West Beirut. He then mediated a cease-fire between Lebanon and Israel. Though the agreement collapsed and Israeli troops ultimately remained in Lebanon for nearly two decades, Habib won international acclaim as America’s preeminent diplomat and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Reagan in 1982.

As special envoy to the Philippines in 1986, he convinced the Reagan administration that President Ferdinand Marcos could no longer govern his country. Habib then persuaded the Filipino leader to resign in favor of Corazon Aquino, the widow of a Marcos political opponent who claimed victory in a disputed presidential election early that year, and to go into exile. In 1987 Habib tackled problems in Central America, negotiating a cease-fire and free elections in Nicaragua. He pressed the Reagan administration to fight communism on the isthmus by pursuing a two-track policy of diplomacy and military strength but was ignored. He resigned without protest, thus ending his diplomatic career.

During his retirement Habib served as a trustee of the American University in Beirut (1983–1992) and chaired the Pacific Forum of Honolulu (1980-1991). The University of California at Berkeley recognized Habib’s distinguished diplomatic career by appointing him Regent’s Lecturer at both its Institute of International Studies and Institute of East Asian Studies (1982). Habib was also a senior research fellow at Hoover Institution at Stanford University (1980–1992). In addition, he remained an active alumnus of the University of Idaho, establishing the Philip Habib Endowment for the Study of Environmental Issues and World Peace.

A shining example of professionalism in public service, Habib told the truth, regardless of how unwelcome, to senior officials of five administrations and maintained their respect by keeping his dissent on policy hidden from the public and following orders. His cheerful disposition, optimism, intelligence, integrity, honesty, perseverance, knowledge, and humor contributed to his high standing as a shrewd and tough negotiator. Colleagues praised Habib for his love for the foreign service and his work ethic. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, described him as “one of my heroes” who “was every secretary of state’s idea of a great foreign-service officer.” George Shultz, one of President Reagan’s secretaries of state, called Habib “America’s top diplomatic professional” with a style that was “direct, forceful, and no-nonsense.” Habib’s fellow career diplomat Richard Holbrooke characterized him as the “optimal diplomat without peer.” Leslie Gelb, a former State Department and Pentagon official, considered Habib the “most outstanding foreign officer of his generation.”

Without the aid of a collection of personal papers or a full-length biography, one must rely primarily on Habib’s superiors to reconstruct his diplomatic career. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy (1984); Ronald Reagan, An American Life (1990); and George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993), praise Habib’s service during the Reagan administration, especially regarding the Middle East. See also Philip C. Habib, Diplomacy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East (1985); Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Maying America’s Middle East Policy from Truman to Reagan (1985); Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (1989); and William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (1998). For Habib’s involvement in the Vietnam War, see Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: Lambda; Memoir (1991), and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 May 1992).

Dean Fafoutis