Washington — Philip Habib probably would be embarrassed if he heard some of the things his colleagues are saying about him these days. A man who abhors publicity and pretension, Mr. Habib may currently be the most highly praised American diplomat engaged in what is known here as crisis management.
As described by diplomats who have worked with him for years, Habib is a rough diamond -- both blunt and sparkling. He has an uncanny ability, they say, to gain trust in the midst of conflict.
In contrast with Henry Kissinger, who gained a reputation in the Middle East for telling one party one thing and another something different, Habib is known in that part of the world for being a "straight shooter."
"He's able to use rough language without giving offense," a State Department official said. "You always know where you stand with Habib."
A month ago, Habib was called away from golf and retirement in California to deal with the Reagan administration's first foreign crisis, in Lebanon. He is credited with helping calm tensions between Israel and Syria. But his task as special envoy now has been complicated immeasurably by Israel's attack of June 7 on the Iraqi atomic reactor near Baghdad.
A career foreign service officer, former ambassador, troubleshooter, and adviser to three secretaries of state, Habib is of Lebanese origin. One colleague said that because of his background, Habib had long avoided getting caught up in Middle East diplomacy. Much of his career was spent in East Asia. But one secretary of state after another sought his talents in coping with crises around the world, and inevitably Habib developed Middle East expertise.
Officials who have worked with Habib say that he combines the tough, streetwise, no- nonsense approach of his native Brooklyn with an appreciation for diplomatic nuance.
"He has a simple, earthy way of going to the heart of an issue," said Harold Saunders, a former assistant secretary of state. "He's cool enough when he needs to be. But he also enjoys the human character in all its variety."
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, former counselor at the State Department and right-hand man to Kissinger, said Habib "is not stuffy at all" but has "a good sense of humor, which he sometimes turns on himself."