Howard B. Schaffer, a leading South Asia specialist who served as ambassador to Bangladesh in a 36-year career in the Foreign Service and who formed a then-rare “diplomatic couple” with his wife, a fellow ambassador, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Washington. He was 88.
The cause was complications from congestive heart failure, said a son, Washingtonian magazine editor Michael Schaffer.
Howie, as he was often known, was considered the dean of South Asian diplomats – a veteran whose expertise on conflict in the disputed region of Kashmir, or on the turbulent relationship between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, was often called upon by other diplomats and academics.
He entered the Foreign Service in 1955 and worked as a political and economic officer, holding posts at embassies in India and Pakistan before serving two stints as deputy assistant secretary for South Asia in the 1980s.
Schaffer was one of 29 diplomats to sign the 1971 “Blood telegram,” a first-of-its-kind State Department dissent cable that criticized U.S. complicity toward a brutal Pakistani crackdown in East Pakistan, which soon became the independent state of Bangladesh.
He was named ambassador to the country in 1984 and, for three years in the position, helped to organize the distribution of U.S. aid, encouraged the Bangladeshi government to shift from martial law toward democracy and participated in lengthy trade negotiations.
“I spent far more time than I had ever expected to do on negotiations with the Bangladeshis on their garment exports to the United States,” he quipped in a 1997 oral history.
Schaffer and his wife, fellow diplomat Teresita C. Schaffer, were among the first couples to maintain dual careers in the Foreign Service, where nepotism rules sometimes prevented them from working at the same embassy. For many years, Schaffer told the New York Times in 1975, their motto was: “Her time will come.”
“There were a couple of jobs I lost out on, or didn’t even seek because we thought what Tezi could do was either unclear or undesirable,” Schaffer said, referring to his wife by her nickname.
After he retired in 1991, she became ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Howard Bruner Schaffer was born in Manhattan on July 21, 1929. His father ran a business that manufactured light fixtures.
Schaffer studied American history and literature at Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, and developed an interest in foreign policy while serving in the Army during the Korean War.
In addition to his wife of 46 years, the former Teresita Currie of Washington, survivors include two sons, Michael Schaffer of Washington and Christopher Schaffer of Miami; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Schaffer was director of studies at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and wrote biographies of diplomats Chester Bowles and Ellsworth Bunker. A 2011 volume he co-wrote with his wife, “How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States,” is now used to train diplomats assigned to Pakistan, according to a State Department spokesman.
The duo also ran a blog, South Asia Hand, that former ambassador Thomas Pickering described as “one of the premier commentaries on the region.”
“He and Tezi,” he said, “were the two people that anyone would call if they wanted to know what was happening in South Asia.”