Philip Charles Habib (February 25, 1920 – May 25, 1992) was an American career diplomat. Called one of the "pre-eminent career diplomats in American post-war history", he was best known for his work as Ronald Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East 1981–83. In that role he averted an Israel-Syria war and an Israel-PLO war in 1981, then negotiated a peaceful end to Israel's 1982 siege of Beirut. In 1986 he was instrumental in ending Ferdinand Marcos's attempt to steal the 1986 presidential election in the Philippines. As U.S. special envoy to Central America in 1986–87, he helped Costa Rican president Oscar Arias shape and sell the peace plan that led to the end of the region's civil wars. He had come out of retirement to take each of those assignments. During his 30-year career as a Foreign Service officer, he had mostly specialized in Asia. In 1968, he was instrumental in halting the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. After his death, The New York Times described him as "the outstanding professional diplomat of his generation in the United States."
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Habib was raised in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of its Bensonhurst section by Lebanese Maronite Catholic parents. His father ran a grocery store. Habib graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and worked as a shipping clerk before starting his undergraduate study in forestry out west at the University of Idaho in Moscow. As a college student on the Palouse, he was well-regarded by his peers and was an accomplished poker player. After graduating in 1942 from the UI's College of Forestry (now Natural Resources), he served in the U.S. Army during World War II and attained the rank of captain. Discharged from the service in 1946, Habib continued his education via the G.I. Bill in a doctoral program in agricultural economics at the University of California in Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D. in 1952. In 1947 recruiters for the American Foreign Service visited the Berkeley campus. They were particularly interested in candidates who did not fit the then-current mold of Ivy League blueblood WASPs. Though he had never given diplomacy a moment's thought, he enjoyed taking tests for intellectual challenge. He took the American Foreign Service exam and scored in the top 10% nationally.
Beginning in 1949, his foreign service career took him to Canada, New Zealand, South Korea (twice), and South Vietnam. He held the State Department position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1967–1969 and was chief of staff for the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks from 1968 to 1971. Habib acquired increasingly important posts, serving as Ambassador to South Korea (1971–1974), Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1974–1976), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1976–1978). When South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in 1973 while Habib was U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Habib's discreet but firm intervention saved Kim's life. Kim later became the first opposition leader in South Korea to become president and also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his reconciliation efforts with North Korea.
A massive heart attack forced Habib to resign as Under Secretary, the top post for a career Foreign Service officer, in 1978. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan called him out of retirement to serve as special envoy to the Middle East. Habib negotiated a peace that allowed the PLO to evacuate from the besieged city of Beirut. In 1982, for his efforts he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest official honor given to a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Senator Charles H. Percy, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Early in 1986, Reagan sent Habib to the Philippines to convince President Ferdinand Marcos to step down. In March 1986, Reagan appointed him as a special envoy to Central America with the intention of furthering U.S. interests in the conflict in Nicaragua. Administration hard-liners intended to use his fame and stature to advance a military solution, namely further funding of the Contras.
However, Habib took his job seriously. Deciding that the Contadora Plan had run its course, Óscar Arias, the newly elected president of Costa Rica, drew up a plan that focused on democratization. While he viewed the Arias plan as riddled with loopholes, Habib took it seriously and worked to help revise it. "Phillip Habib became my ambassador to the rest of the Central American presidents," said Arias.
On August 7, 1987, the five Central American presidents, much to the shock of the rest of the world, agreed in principle to the Arias plan. Because further negotiating would require Habib to meet directly with Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, President Reagan forbade him to travel. Believing he no longer had the confidence of the president, Habib resigned.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz spoke at his funeral in Belmont, California, and characterized Habib as "...a man who really made a difference." He was buried nearby at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. Speakers at his memorial service in Washington at the National Cathedral the following week included two former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance, and a future one, former colleague Lawrence Eagleburger.
At the time of his death, Habib was one of the University of Idaho's most famous and respected graduates; he co-chaired the university's centennial fund-raising campaign several years earlier, as well as several class reunions. He moderated its Borah Symposium, an annual foreign affairs conference, in 1986, and received the university's highest honors for alumni in 1969, 1974, and 1983.
John Boykin’s 2014 e-book "One Brief Miracle: The Diplomat, the Zealot, and the Wild Blundering Siege" told the story of how Habib negotiated a peaceful end to Israel’s 1982 siege of Beirut. It was an updated, abridged version of his 2002 hardback edition, “Cursed Is the Peacemaker: The American Diplomat Versus the Israeli General, Beirut 1982.”
In 2006, Habib was featured on a United States postage stamp, one of a block of six featuring prominent diplomats. In 2013, the city of Junieh, Lebanon, unveiled a bust of Habib among other "national heroes" in Friendship Square.
Philip C. Habib (1920–1992) was renowned for his diplomacy in some of the world's most dangerous flash points. An authority on Southeast Asia, a peace negotiator in the Middle East, and a special envoy to Central America, Habib was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982.
William J. Porter
|United States Ambassador to South Korea
Richard L. Sneider
Robert S. Ingersoll
|Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
September 27, 1974 – June 30, 1976
Arthur W. Hummel, Jr.
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