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From CIA Military Instructor to Businessman

Richard Armitage: the Combatant Who Dreamed of Diplomacy

A career officer, the Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage began his professional life participating in the most secret and dangerous operations of the Viet Nam war. Thanks to his experience in combat, he represents a point of balance between the imperial ambitions of the neo-conservatives, defined in the “Wolfowitz doctrine”, and the concern about not unnecessarily putting at risk the lives of US soldiers of the “Powell doctrine”.

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Richard Armitage began his political career in Viet Nam. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1967 and shortly afterwards he was sent to this Asian country. In 1968, he sailed Vietnamese territorial waters when the Tet offensive took place - a significantly violent setback for the US army. Eager to participate in the war, he asked to be sent to the theatre of operations, where he started to act as advisor for the river patrol squads. After receiving a four-week course on Vietnamese language, he got deeply involved in the conflict as he volunteered several times to carry out the most secret and dangerous military operations.

Specialist in Secret Operations

After a first one-year stay, he became a counterinsurgency instructor in the military base of Coronado, California, where he taught interrogation and ambush techniques from 1969 to 1970. In 1971, he volunteered for another one-year period in Viet Nam where he served as advisor to a group located near the border with Cambodia.

As soon as he returned he departed again in 1972 to work as an advisor to an ambush group that operated along the coastline. According to the testimony of many of his acquaintances, friends and collaborators, Armitage at the same time worked for the CIA and, in particular, for the Phoenix program that would allow the elimination of more than 60,000 civilians that were under suspicion of being agents of the Viet Cong.

Armitage’s participation is confirmed by Laryy Ropka, who worked with him at that time and later in Iran; and also by Ted Schaklev, head of the CIA services in Saigon. Armitage today denies having taken part directly in the operation. In his opinion, his ambush team transmitted key information to the CIA officials in the region but they never cooperated directly with the US espionage agency.

As he spoke Vietnamese fluently, Richard Armitage fell in love with the country and was convinced of the need to defend it till the end from the Communist barbarians. The withdrawal of the US troops in 1973, after the signing of the Paris Accords, was an immense disillusion for him: “In December 1972 I had realized (after the intensive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ordered by Richard Nixon) how close we were from victory. (...) I think that Henry Kissinger and the president lost their patience [1] . Some years later he used a particularly strong metaphor: «I realized that (the withdrawal of the US troops) was like getting a woman pregnant and then leaving town. It is not a beautiful or good image either but I thought that we acted like an irresponsible father».

Armitage decided to stay in the country in spite of the withdrawal. He asked to be included in the 50 US military men authorized to stay in the country; later, after the General Staff of the Navy rejected his petition, he started working as a civil servant with the military attaché in Saigon. This is how Armitage managed to continue serving as military advisor to the armed forces of South Viet Nam, who were still at war with the North, thanks to the military assistance of Washington.

“Sponsors” of the shadow

Richard Armitage left Saigon in 1974. For a while he tried to convince Congress and the administration of the need to increase their support of South Viet Nam, but priorities had changed in Washington and his demands were unanswered. Fortunately for him, the links he established during the war would benefit him in the future.

In April 1974, Erich von Marbod, a high-ranking official at the Pentagon whom he had met in Viet Nam, called him to Washington. Von Marbod was in charge of sending the money, weapons and logistics to Viet Nam after the withdrawal of the United States. Armitage was then entrusted with the mission of recovering the military equipment sent by the United States to Viet Nam so that it did not fell in the hands of the Vietminh who were very close to the final victory. This operation, that was almost a complete failure, represented the end of a period for Armitage: this time, Viet Nam was lost for good.

Richard Armitage’s actions did not conclude there though. On the contrary, his contacts with Von Marbod allowed him, in September 1975, to accompany the Pentagon’s weapons salesman to Teheran. The mission given to him by then Defense Minister Arthur Schlesinger consisted of trying to make the Iranian Shah’s weapons purchase program more coherent. This policy was the continuation of a project created by Nixon and Kissinger to turn Iran into a regional stabilizing, pro-western and heavily armed power. Little is known about the activities of Armitage, a former CIA agent, at a time when Washington began to distrust the Shah’s intentions of ambition and to consider his overthrow.

After Jimmy Carter assumed power, in early 1977, the new administration decided to freeze the contracts in the government. Then, it was not possible for Eric Von Marbod to contract Armitage who was unemployed and tried to use his knowledge about Southeast Asia to set up a business in Bangkok with Brigadier General Harry C. Aderholt, a legendary figure of the airborne squads who was involved in numerous secret operations, most of them for the CIA.

He parachuted behind the enemy lines during the war of Korea and led operations to create an airlift during the CIA campaign to support the uprising of the Tibetans, in the late 1950s.

In 1976 he founded in Bangkok an association called Southeast Asia Travel Agency that aimed at getting contracts that could help the leaders of the Thai army. Thailand was then a center of opium trafficking to the United States, particularly thanks to the active role played by the Thai military [2] . Aderholt’s main client was Air Siam, a small air line company that only had one Boeing 747 flying from Bangkok to Los Angeles. It was then that he recruited Armitage, before the competition of the Thai International air line ruined his business.

Entering the Pentagon

Back in Washington, Armitage was decided to penetrate the circles of power and, particularly, the diplomatic apparatus. Thanks to his contacts, he was introduced to Senator Bob Dole who was fond of the veterans of the US Army. He became his administrative assistant until 1979 when he began to support the candidacy of George H. W. Bush Sr. who faced anti-Communist actor Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary elections. After Reagan later won the elections, Armitage asked his campaign director, Richard Allen, to be assigned diverse administrative tasks and the contacts with the press. His talent as organizer seduced Allen and also Fred Iklé. After Reagan assumed power, both of them pressured to have Armitage as a member of the new administration.

He obtained a temporary post with Casper Weinberger, the new Defense Secretary, whom he had to help in making up his team. For him, it was easy to ask and obtain a post as assistant to the Under-Secretary of Defense for Asia in which he would not stay very long. In early 1983 he was promoted to the post of Under-Secretary for International Security Affairs, which allowed him to play an important role in the designing of the Pentagon policies. Only the relations with the Soviet Union and Europe, entrusted to Richard Perle - a friend of Paul Wolfowitz and a fierce enemy of the “détente” with the Soviet Union -, escaped from him.

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Colin Powell

At that time, the veteran met Colin Powell, who was Casper Weinberger’s first military assistant. Soon, Powell and Armitage became an indispensable duet in the Pentagon, united and interchangeable.

All the essential issues were linked with one or the other and, consequently, with both of them. They exchanged notes, information and anecdotes on a daily basis. Getting angry at one of them meant moving away from the other. The work of this team would guarantee a fearful efficiency in the policy of both military men, which creates a sort of hostility in the Pentagon among those who did not belong to their most immediate environment.

Coming from modest US families, they both shared to a great extent their vision of the world, characterized by its proximity to the concerns of the middle class. For example, they both sent their children to public schools and became interested in the fight against racial discrimination. Since his returned from Viet Nam, Richard Armitage and his wife adopted six children, including three Afro-Americans, and gave refuge to more than 40 children.

The “Reagan Doctrine”

These “social” concerns did not prevent Armitage from getting deeply involved in the secret operations carried out at that time in the name of the new “Reagan doctrine”, mainly designed by William Casey, the new CIA Director.

It was based in the large-scale military and financial support of armed guerrillas against USSR-backed regimes: «The support of those who fight for freedom is self-defense», said Reagan during his State of the Union speech in 1985. The targets were mainly Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua and Angola.

Armitage traveled around the world organizing the support of the anti-Soviet and anti-Communist insurrection. Every three months, he visited the officials of the Pakistani ISI secret services to speak with them about the best way to support the Afghan mujaheddins. He made contact with different leaders of the troops, particularly with Burhanuddin Rabbani, who would become president of Afghanistan in the early 1990s and head of the North Alliance after the assassination of Massoud in September 2001.

Armitage did not have time to work on all the conflicts: Latin America and, particularly, Nicaragua and El Salvador, remained in the hands of his superior official, Fred Iklé. According to Edward Luttwak, an intellectual and a specialist in military affairs that used to work for the Pentagon at that time, the Viet Nam veteran regarded the conflicts in Central America as guerrilla wars which the United States would lose.

Armitage and Wolfowitz were pretty close at that time, a relationship that would justify an explanation during the opposition between the Pentagon and the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush. After the increasing verbal attacks against Colin Powell, Armitage told Wolfowitz: «If you attack my friends, you attack me» [3] .

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Paul Wolfowitz

However, at that time, they got along well and they played a decisive role in overthrowing Ferdinando Marcos, who was provoking a leftist opposition staying in power [4] . While Wolfowitz presented this policy as a way to fight in the name of democracy, Armitage clearly perceived it as a means to prevent the Communists from taking power and to avoid a repetition of Viet Nam. In short, it was about intervening in the political level in order to avoid a future repressive intervention that involved sending troops.

Scandals

Thanks to this hyperactivity, which yielded very good results for the US diplomacy, Richard Armitage made his way in the Reagan administration. He was every day in contact with Paul Wolfowitz, then US ambassador in Indonesia.

Then, the Iran-Contras scandal broke. It was 1986. The US Congress decided to carry out investigations about the arms sales by the Reagan administration to Iran, whose profits would serve to finance the extreme-right wing guerrillas in Nicaragua against the leftist Sandinistas.

Colin Powell and Richard Armitage were not direct targets of the investigations as they were known at that time for their opposition of the arms sales to Teheran but the fact is that they become suspects for having known the manipulations. Armitage’s career was compromised for a while. It has to be said that his relations affected him. He not only was in Teheran in the 1970s but he also often visited General Richard Secord, questioned in the scandal. In addition, Ted Schackley, one of the first Americans contacted by Iran in this case, was head of the CIA station in Viet Nam when Armitage served there.

The veteran managed to keep his post in the Reagan administration although a new scandal definitely took him out of the picture for a long time.

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Ross Perot

Richard Armitage built his political ascent mainly upon his status as a Viet Nam veteran. It is a paradox that this aspect was the target of the most violent attack he suffered in his career, carried out by multimillionaire Ross Perot from 1987 on.

Perot tried to make the Reagan administration aware of the fate of US soldiers imprisoned in Viet Nam and kept in prison since then. First he asked to head a Congress commission to investigate the issue. In early 1987, Perot departed for the region alone to meet with the Vietnamese government.

Back in Washington, he explained to the US leaders that Hanoi was willing to free the prisoners in exchange for an improvement of their economic relations with the United States. It was an unacceptable condition for the Reagan administration that would only improve their bilateral economic relations with Viet Nam if the Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia. Perot’s unilateral initiative, which some considered upset the ongoing negotiations, was not seen well by the White House that decided to deny the existence of these prisoners.

Richard Armitage attacked Perot’s campaign thus gaining the animosity of the multimillionaire who tried to bring back the past of the veteran exposing his libertinism in Viet Nam, amid prostitutes, bandits and gambling houses.

This discrediting campaign did not yield fruit immediately. In spite of the scandal, Armitage kept his post in the Pentagon but when George H. W. Bush Sr. assumed power in 1989, his nomination as Secretary of the Army along with Dick Cheney was submitted to the approval of Congress and things got complicated. This time, Perot managed to be heard in the Capitol, particularly thanks to the support of Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed Armitage’s rapprochement policy towards Japan. Due to Cheney’s little support, he withdrew his candidacy.

His separation did not last long. On April 10th, 1990, President George H. W. Bush asked him to serve as a negotiator with Philippines. Like during the time of President Ferdinando Marcos, he was in charge of obtaining Corazón Aquino’s authorization for the presence of two US military bases: the Subic Bay Naval Station and the Clark Air Force Base.

After talking for a long while about the financial aspects of this agreement, Armitage had to take care of the case relating to the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano, in June 1991, that destroyed the Clark base. Finally, the authorities allowed the United States to keep the Subic Bay station for 203 million dollars annually, a recommendation that was rejected by the Philippine senate.

Facing such a big opposition from the population and part of the political circles in Philippines, Armitage had to capitulate. Less than a year later, the US army completely withdrew from the country and did not return until 2002 due to the new “war against terrorism” declared by Washington.

Armitage’s failure did not prevent him from being appointed, in January 1992, coordinator of aid delivery to the USSR. At that time, drug trafficking inundates Moscow where the war among gangs increased between Russian and Chechen mafia clans [5] .

Opposed to the position of Robert Zoellick, then Under Secretary of State and close advisor to James Baker, Armitage managed to keep his post during the Clinton administration. He was one of the few Republicans in that case along with Colin Powell. However, his positions regarding Russia quickly caused his departure: in February 1993, he said in the Vanderbilt University that President Boris Yeltsin did not have a “great vision” and that his days «were numbered... I think that he is no longer so useful and that someone else should take his post».

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Back in the civil life, Armitage created his own advisory association: Armitage Associates, where he hires several of his former assistants in the government of the United States. Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the former Secretary of Defense, worked for him for a while.

His main clients were arms and oil companies, mainly those with interests in Central Asia, the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union. The advice given involved several geo-political sectors like the right to water in the Middle East or arms contracts.

In December 1993, Armitage wrote to the US ambassador in Georgia on behalf of a US company that was trying to set up telephone lines there. Later, he visited Heydar Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, to defend the interests of Texaco.

He also worked for several US companies such as Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Unocal and Brown & Root (Halliburton); arms companies such as SAIC and MPRI; and some foreign companies like Toshiba, Mitsubishi, the Japan National Oil Corporation and even... the embassy of Japan.

Armitage kept his political contacts and regularly received representatives from foreign governments who were eager to receive advices about the way to discuss with the Clinton administration, the CIA station top officials and the press. He even got very close to many Democrats like Kurt Campbell, official in charge of Asia in the Pentagon and very close friend of Armitage.

Like for many of his friends, the last period of the 1990s was a period of political hibernation for Richard Armitage. He showed his support of the project embodied in the candidacy of George W. Bush Jr. when he signed, since 1998, the call of a Project for a New American Century that demanded the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

His name was mentioned along with the main figures of the future Bush administration like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Paula Dobrianski or Robert Zoellick too. Armitage was not a member of the clan of the hawks: like Colin Powell, he was kept out of the meetings of the Congressional Policy Advisory Board, where Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, met to deal with diplomatic issues.

Between 1998 and 2000, these were the men who designed the foreign policy of the future Republican administration. However, in early 1999, Armitage was recruited by Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz to participate in the team of the Vulcains, in charge of training candidate Bush in international affairs, something that showed that the Viet Nam veteran was not so excluded as it seemed as his name was mentioned along with those of Wolfowitz and Rice, but also along with Richard Perle and Dov Zakheim, not very well known for moderating their geo-strategic opinions.

[1] White Christmas in April, by J. Edward Lee and Toby Haynsworth , Peter Land Publishing, 1995, p. 84

[2] La politique de l’héroïne - L’implication de la CIA dans le trafic des drogues, d’Alfred W. McCoy, Lézard publishing house, 1999 (1st ed. 1972, 2nd ed. 1991), p. 433-434

[3] Interview with Richard Armitage, by James Mann in The Rise of the Vulcans - The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, de James Mann, Viking, 2004

[4] See « Paul Wolfowitz, l’âme du Pentagone », by Paul Labarique, Voltaire, October 6, 2004

[5] « Boris Berezovski, le receleur », Voltaire, April 26, 2004

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