Peter Galbraith, The Rogue Diplomat
By Andy Bromage - Seven Days | Vermont's Independent
ex-ambassador Peter Galbraith is shaking up the
March 28, 2012
It’s a typical day in the Vermont legislature, and
Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) is hearing
testimony on a pet-merchant bill in a cramped
committee room. Designed to crack down on
unregulated breeders, the legislation would require
anyone selling animals for money to be licensed by
the state and subject to inspections.
It’s a far cry from where Galbraith was sitting two
years ago: at a negotiating table with Afghan
President Hamid Karzai discussing the sensitive
subject of election fraud.
The Windham County senator’s biography reads like
the plot of a James Bond movie — if 007 were a
diplomat rather than a spy.
As a globe-trotting teenager, Galbraith hitchhiked
across the Libyan desert, rode a Mark Twain-style
riverboat down the Amazon and toured the Soviet
Union in a Volkswagen bus.
As a U.S. Senate staffer in the 1980s, he helped
uncover Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds and
narrowly escaped mortar fire to deliver a home video
of the shelling to ABC News.
Several years later, while serving as the U.S.
ambassador to Croatia, Galbraith negotiated the
peace accord that ended the four-year Croatian War
of Independence. That, in turn, led to a United
Nations appointment in newly independent East Timor,
where he helped rebuild a country ravaged by its
departing colonial occupiers.
In between, Galbraith is credited with helping to
secure the release of a high-profile political
prisoner: Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister
who was Galbraith’s longtime
friend. He also found time to pen two books on the
war in Iraq, as well as numerous articles and op-eds.
Today, Galbraith maintains a private business as a
sort of freelance diplomat, jet-setting from Vermont
to far-flung locales including South Sudan and South
Korea to advise powerful world leaders on matters of
So it surprised many in 2010 when he made a bid for
the Vermont Senate. After a three-decade career at
the highest levels of international diplomacy, the
61-year-old from Townshend decided to run for the
seat vacated by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Assisted by
considerable name recognition and $45,000 of his own
money, the Democrat finished first among five
candidates, 520 votes ahead of incumbent Sen.
Now approaching the end of his first term, and
gearing up to seek a second, Galbraith has emerged
as the 30-member Senate’s most unconventional member
— and arguably its most disliked. He has bucked his
own party and upset the Senate’s carefully
established pecking order, going rogue on the floor
with long speeches, interrogations of colleagues and
substantive amendments that disregard the back-room
deals typically made among Senate leaders.
Galbraith’s detractors view him as “abrasive,”
“self-important” and “pompous” — and those are just
the words used by the Democratic Senate president.
His defenders describe him as an extremely bright
policy maker whose tough questions and contrarian
viewpoints often ruffle feathers under the Golden
Dome — a slower-paced, more deferential environment
than Galbraith may be accustomed to.
At a Senate caucus last week, Senate President Pro
Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) sought to
reinforce order by imploring members not to make
speeches on every bill or “try to create sound bites
every 30 seconds.” Campbell says the message was
directed at all freshman senators — not just
Galbraith — but others present viewed the order as
squarely aimed at the outspoken former diplomat.
Galbraith’s outsider status hasn’t won him many
friends, or much support for his own legislation.
But he has managed to exert influence nonetheless.
He has single-handedly stalled a
campaign-finance-reform bill by threatening to
attach a floor amendment banning corporate
contributions to Vermont candidates — and promising
to request a roll call to put every senator on
Unlike most of his colleagues, Galbraith believes
corporate donations have “an enormous” influence on
Vermont politics and are one reason why “it’s so
hard to address the big issues around here.” Plus,
he says, “the campaign finance bill was a sham. It
pretended to do something without doing anything.”
Of course, Galbraith doesn’t need outside money —
from corporations or individuals — to run for
office, thanks in part to a lucrative oil deal he
struck in Iraqi Kurdistan during the war several
years ago. Galbraith doesn’t apologize for profiting
from that controversial deal,www.ekurd.net
or for his independent — some would say rebellious —
behavior in Montpelier. His loyalty is to his
constituents, he says, not to his party or its
And though he toyed with running for governor in
2008, Galbraith says his state Senate service is not
a warm-up act to a run for governor, Congress or
U.S. Senate. And that allows him to speak his mind
more freely than most senators, he says.
Galbraith sees parallels between the state Senate
and the diplomatic world. “To be effective as a
diplomat, you have to learn the local cultures and
study the tribes, the clans, the political parties,
the personalities,” he says. “This is very similar.
I spend a lot of time observing and trying to figure
And therein lies the irony. As a diplomat, Galbraith
was a natural — brokering a peace treaty in one
nation, helping to rebuild another, exposing
atrocities by foreign dictators and learning five
languages along the way. But, so far at least, he
has failed to win the respect of key elders in
Vermont’s political tribes.
Galbraith is conversant in German, Russian, French,
Croatian and Dari — a language spoken in
Afghanistan. But after nearly two years in
Montpelier, he’s still learning to speak Vermont
From Karachi to Committee
On the world stage, Peter Galbraith is a big deal.
His private consulting business, Windham Resources
Group — which helps foreign governments and
businesses develop negotiating strategies — took him
across the Atlantic 20 times last year, to Africa,
Europe, the Middle East and Asia. So far this year,
he’s gone on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” to
discuss conflict in the Middle East, and on BBC News
to comment on a U.S. soldier’s alleged massacre of
17 villagers in Kandahar.
In the middle of January, Galbraith flew to Pakistan
for the weekend at the request of President Asif Ali
Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and a
longtime friend. He was back on the Vermont Senate
floor by Tuesday morning.
“I was asked by the president of Pakistan to come
and stay with him,” Galbraith says during an
interview at the Statehouse last week. “His
government was under huge threat from the Supreme
Court in Pakistan, which is a fairly partisan
In Montpelier, however, Galbraith is treated like
any other freshman senator. He didn’t get the
committee assignments he wanted; he requested Health
and Welfare; Finance; and Natural Resources and
Energy but was instead placed on Economic
Development, Housing and General Affairs; and
Government Operations — or Gov Ops.
The latter committee was supposed to handle
reapportionment this year — the once-a-decade
redrawing of Senate district lines. But Senate
leaders gave that job to a select committee — and
declined to put Galbraith on it. In dramatic
protest, he submitted a letter of resignation from
the committee — which was not accepted — and
boycotted its meetings for several weeks.
“He’s used to being the alpha dog, and now he’s one
of the puppies,” observes Sen. Peg Flory
(R-Rutland), who serves with Galbraith on the Gov
Ops committee. “I think, for Peter, it’s been a
difficult adjustment. He’s more used to being in
Being effective in the Senate requires learning “how
to play well with others,” Flory says, without
compromising your core values. “You have to learn
how to get along. If you don’t, regardless of how
bright you are or how good your ideas are, you
quickly marginalize yourself.”
Campbell puts it more bluntly.
“The reason his ideas are not embraced, quite
frankly, is because of the way he treats people,”
Campbell says during an interview in the Senate
president’s office. “He often comes across as being
arrogant, abrasive, condescending, and people just
don’t like that. No one likes to be treated as if
their intelligence is being questioned.”
Campbell adds, “Peter is somebody who has a
tremendous number of gifts that he could offer and
could be utilized. But because of his personality,
people aren’t going to listen to him.” That said,
Campbell admits Galbraith has supplied some
“constructive criticism” on his leadership.
While Campbell is talking, Sen. Jane Kitchel
(D-Caledonia), the powerful chair of the Senate
Appropriations Committee, walks into the office.
She’s there to discuss Senate business, but Campbell
asks her to weigh in on Galbraith, and Kitchel
offers some advice for the freshman senator.
“When you come to this body, you give deference to
the people who have served and have experience,”
Kitchel says. “You listen, and basically you sit
down and stay quiet until you can establish your own
track record and credibility.”
Galbraith couldn’t see his role more differently.
Acknowledging that his outspokenness has rocked the
boat a little, Galbraith says he was elected to
tackle a whole host of issues, “not just the ones
that happen to be in the purview of the committees
that I’m on.”
To that end, he’s introduced legislation to ban
hydrofracking, to prohibit wind turbines in state
parks and forests, and to expand broadband and
service in Vermont. Galbraith
says Vermont’s health care reform is a “huge
opportunity” comparable to the creation of Social
Security almost a century ago, and he offered
several floor amendments to last year’s health care
One of them would have exempted military service
members from paying into the future state-created
insurance plan, because service members already pay
for federally run health plans. Galbraith’s
amendment passed the Senate on a voice vote but was
deleted from the bill in a conference committee.
Galbraith has also proposed three amendments to the
state constitution. One would establish a right to
privacy; another, a right to health care; and a
third would provide for a set of “environmental
rights” such as clean water and “a natural
environment uncompromised by manufactured substances
that are toxic and unhealthy.”
His motivation? His constituents “care enormously
about health care and environmental issues,”
Galbraith says. “The notion that I would not
participate or offer amendments... I’m not going to
Galbraith’s defenders in the Senate dispute the
prevailing portrait of him as an elitist
know-it-all. Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington),
who first met Galbraith in the late 1970s, calls him
“one of the sharpest minds around.”
Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) likens
Galbraith to a “12-cylinder race car” driving on a
track not known for its speed. In this metaphor, the
track is the legislature.
“He’s a quick study,” says Illuzzi, who chairs the
economic development committee on which Galbraith
serves. “He’s able to be more nimble and move toward
an action plan before others are able or willing to
do so. He’s more willing to go faster.”
Galbraith didn’t waste any time last month during a
Senate floor showdown over a controversial budget
bill. Illuzzi, Galbraith and Sen. Tim Ashe
(D/P-Chittenden) wanted to tack $250,000 onto a
midyear budget bill to study whether the state
should buy a majority stake in the Vermont Electric
Power Company, or VELCO, which manages Vermont’s
high-voltage transmission lines.
Senate leaders opposed funding the study, and in a
closed-door meeting persuaded Illuzzi to drop the
amendment. But they couldn’t convince Galbraith, who
wasn’t invited behind closed doors, even after
saying it could sink the entire budget bill — and
with it, badly needed disaster aid for towns
rebuilding after Tropical Storm Irene.
One after the other, senators implored Galbraith to
follow Illuzzi’s lead. Even Ashe, an original
sponsor, said the VELCO study should be delayed.
Galbraith ultimately relented, but not before a
short, defiant speech.
Delaying the study, he said, is the same thing as
“killing it” and losing the opportunity to make a
lucrative investment in Vermont’s energy future.
Galbraith grew up in an elite world of politics,
academia and international relations. Born on New
Year’s Eve in 1950, he is the third son of famed
economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was the U.S.
ambassador to India under John F. Kennedy. Peter’s
mother was Catherine Merriam Atwater, an author
whose father served as consul general of Siam to the
Peter’s brother, James K. Galbraith, is a well-known
economist at the University of Texas. Another
brother, J. Alan Galbraith, is a retired Washington,
DC, lawyer who lives in California. A fourth
brother, Douglas, died in childhood of leukemia.
The family lived in India, Switzerland and
Cambridge, Mass., where John Kenneth Galbraith
taught at Harvard, and spent summers in Townshend,
Vt. Catherine’s ancestors were among the first
settlers of Burlington; a distant relative —
Jeremiah Atwater — was the first president of
Peter Galbraith earned degrees from Harvard, Oxford
and Georgetown. It was at Harvard that he met and
befriended Benazir Bhutto, the future prime minister
of Pakistan. In her memoir, Bhutto credited him with
helping to secure her release from prison during the
military dictatorship of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Postcollege, Galbraith found himself back in
Vermont, teaching at now-defunct Windham College and
cutting his teeth in Democratic politics. He worked
on Phil Hoff’s 1970 U.S. Senate campaign, served as
a George McGovern delegate at the 1972 convention
and ran Morris Udall’s 1976 presidential campaign in
Vermont against Jimmy Carter. That led to a stint as
chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party from 1977
Illuzzi met Galbraith while the former was covering
state politics for the Burlington Free Press as a
freelance journalist. “We were both relatively
young,” Illuzzi recalls. “What I remember about him
was, one, he had a very famous father; and two, he
was very bright.”
Galbraith’s big break came in 1979, when he landed a
job staffing the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations. That 14-year gig sent him on fact-finding
missions to political hot spots all over the globe
and afforded him a prominent role in steering U.S.
foreign policy under senators such as Joe Biden,
Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Claiborne Pell.
One those fact-finding trips, in 1987, sent
Galbraith to the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq
war. He drove from Kuwait through Basra, Iraq, and
finally into Iraqi Kurdistan.
“When I crossed the border into the Kurdish region,
we had very detailed maps, and the villages showed
on our maps were not there. What the Iraqi regime
was doing was depopulating Kurdistan. They destroyed
5000 villages, relocated people to concentration
camps in urban areas for better control,” says
Galbraith, who concluded in his report that Saddam
Hussein was committing genocide.
Another trip during the post-Gulf War uprising
landed Galbraith — and home video he’d shot in Iraqi
Kurdistan — on the national news. Fleeing Kurdish
villages under heavy Iraqi fire, he crossed the
Tigris River into Syria in a canoe, filming the
action all the while. He shared the video with an
ABC News crew in Damascus, and Galbraith and his
footage wound up on the evening news with Peter
Jennings, and later on the news magazine show
From there, Galbraith climbed the diplomatic ladder.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton tapped him to be the
first U.S. ambassador to Croatia, where Galbraith
again came face to face with war and genocide, this
time in the Balkans. That led to a stint as head of
the United Nations’ transitional team in East Timor
— newly independent from Indonesia — where Galbraith
was in charge of political, electoral and
constitutional affairs. Eventually, his Pakistani
connections landed him a job in Afghanistan as the
United Nations’ deputy special representative in
That assignment — and Galbraith’s diplomatic career
— ended abruptly in September 2009 when his boss at
the UN, special representative to Afghanistan Kai
Eide, dismissed him over a dispute regarding
election fraud in the Afghan presidential election.
Galbraith said he found hundreds of “ghost polling
stations” in remote locations that no person could
conceivably reach, while other precincts reported
200 percent voter turnout.
After his dismissal, Galbraith went public, accusing
Eide of “downplaying the fraud” that helped Hamid
Karzai win. Three months later, Eide, a Norwegian
diplomat who had introduced Galbraith to his current
wife years earlier, stepped down.
In the midst of all that, Galbraith was dragged into
a more personal scandal. A Norwegian newspaper
reported in October 2009 that Galbraith, whose wife
is Norwegian, stood to collect as much as $100
million for brokering an oil deal between Kurdish
officials in Iraq and the Norwegian oil company DNO.
The deal was troubling to some because Galbraith, an
ex-diplomat with strong ties to the petroleum-rich
region, had advised the Kurdish regional government
as Iraq wrote its constitution in 2005. One point of
negotiation: how to split up Iraq’s vast oil
A year later, and just a month before Vermont’s
elections, the New York Times reported that a
British court had ordered the oil company to pay
and a Yemeni investor between
$55 million and $75 million for their stakes in the
Kurdish oil deal as part of a settlement. The sum
Galbraith and the other investor had asked the court
to award? According to the Times: $144 million.
Today, Galbraith still defends the oil deal. Though
he would not disclose the amount of money he
received — he says the court settlement was
confidential — Galbraith calls it “a small fraction
of the kind of figures that were tossed around in
the New York Times. But a small fraction of those
figures is, of course, something that one can live
comfortably off of.”
Galbraith says he was a private citizen at the time,
not a government official, and was an unpaid adviser
to the Kurds. Plus, Galbraith notes that he
represented the oil company on a joint commission
with the Iraqi ministry of oil.
“I never had an official role in Iraq. I was doing
business there,” he says. “I was not trading on any
U.S. government position. I was not trading on any
UN position, because I hadn’t had any. I helped
create a Kurdistan oil industry, which is now
thriving and provides Kurdistan with the financial
basis to be independent. And that’s something that
I’ve strongly believed in. It was totally
Not everyone viewed the deal as legit. Journalist
and author Chris Hedges covered Galbraith and
socialized with him when Hedges was Balkan bureau
chief for the New York Times and Galbraith was
ambassador to Croatia. Hedges recalls Galbraith as a
“very media-savvy” diplomat who was “extremely
solicitous of the New York Times.” Hedges was also
the Times’ Middle East bureau chief from 1988 to
’95. He views it as “repugnant” and “morally
indefensible” that Galbraith profited off Kurdish
“The Kurdish deal that he orchestrated, for me, was
the window into who he is, and it’s really
unforgivable,” Hedges says in a phone interview. “To
take that kind of money out of the region, with that
level of human suffering. The refugee camps are just
appalling. That money could have made a huge
difference in the lives of people who endured
tremendous suffering, and he had no right to take it
But Galbraith says the money was already out of
Kurdistan. “This was an arrangement between the oil
company and me. I would never had made such an
arrangement with the Kurdistan government,” he says.
“I did not feel guilty taking from an oil company.
It’s that kind of defiance that makes Galbraith both
determined and sometimes unpopular, whether he’s in
the Middle East or in the middle of a committee
hearing in Montpelier.
“My age, experience and the fact that I don’t have
any great ambitions,” Galbraith summarizes, “give me
the great liberty to speak my mind.”
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