Wednesday, May 13, 2009

John Brown on Richard Holbrooke

I met an odd but interesting man a few years ago who was a former federal bureaucrat. I'm not sure exactly what he did, but he was well-informed on a number of issues and loved to name-drop. After he showed a transparent streak of anti-Semitism I held him at arm's length, taking anything he said with a grain of salt, but we remained on conversational terms. He was short on opinion but long on facts and had a rare humility. being able to admit when he didn't know something. On one occasion we were discussing diplomacy and I mentioned Richard Holbrooke. "Oh, him," he said. "He's been running for Secretary of State forever. Everyone knows about him." It struck me as a rather blunt insider's remark and left me wondering if there was some pllicy difference held by Holbrooke that made the man dislike him so. That was several years ago. And this morning I come across this totally unrelated but nearly identical observation of Richard Holbrooks that probably strikes the casual reader as strange, but to me it carries a ring of truth.

As a former Foreign Service officer, I worked with (he'd say "under") currently Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration, Richard Holbrooke, in Belgrade in the mid-90s, when he was Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.

I suspect that "The Bulldozer" (as they called him in the Balkans) is behind the latest White House get-rid-of the-incompetent-US-military in Afghanistan move. Definitely worth checking with persons more knowledgeable than I.

I've tried to put a piece together about Holbrooke, basically defending him (as if he'd care) from attacks from the left regarding his competence/morality for his new Obama-administration assignment. But I couldn't, probably because Holbrooke is far too complicated and brilliant.

Holbrooke is insufferable, of course; but, no matter what his limitless ambitions were in the 90s (he wanted to be Secretary of State, as his charming Hungarian-born wife informed me in a Belgrade restaurant, at a lunch for Serb intellectuals I helped put together -- I was amazed by her candor) he did try to end war in the Balkans.

Bottom Line: The unbearable Mr. Holbrooke wanted to end the war in the Balkans, not start one.

And so as the "PAO" [Public Affairs Officer] at the American Embassy Belgrade it was a privilege to work under -- yes, under -- him.

Holbrooke's main problem, of course, was that he initially knew nothing about the Balkans (but who does know anything initially about the Balkans), but he could identify sleazeballs (it takes one to know one?) quickly. And this is "why" he "succeeded" in the Balkans via the Dayton "ceasefire" -- no way it can be called a peace agreement -- in that tumultuous part of the world.

The latest PR move at the WH -- the Afghan and the Pakistani president meeting there with President Obama -- smacks 100% of Holbrooke -- a replication of the scenario of the Balkan dictators meeting at Dayton he arranged with American dignitaries.

Give Holbrooke credit for repeating himself, although he is a master of reinvention.

I still have no idea why we are/what we are doing in Afghanistan. I should think that someone who knows something about history -- yes, Mr. Holbrooke himself, few among government servants (and he is an immensely dedicated one) with a sense of the past -- should realize the quagmire we are getting ourselves into at a time of economic crisis, and when an American soldier shoots down his comrades in Iraq -- realizes the severity of the situation.

May Allah bless the insufferable Mr. Holbrooke. And may Pakistan and Afghanistan remember that he -- of Jewish ancestry -- strove to save Muslims in Bosnia, when precious few in the world cared.

John Brown compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.''

There are a number of links at the site that I didn't copy here as well as a comment that underscores what Mr. Brown has said.
At some level this says more about Barack Obama's management and analytical ability than any of the players mentioned.

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