Friday, December 17, 2010

The diplomatic warrior

The death this week of US diplomat Richard Holbrooke has provided some instructive lessons about the transformation in American foreign policy during the last decade and a half.

I still recall the galvanizing scene in 1994 being broadcast from Dayton, Ohio, where the Clinton administration had just put the finishing touches to a peace deal for Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was more than anything else Holbrooke’s triumph, as he succeeded in bludgeoning hard men like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman (as well as the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic) into accepting an American-sponsored accord.

At one point there was a commotion, as Holbrooke stood on the rostrum announcing the results. It was European envoy Carl Bildt, co-chairman of the Dayton conference, walking away from the stage in a huff, clearly fed up with Holbrooke for stealing the show. No one could ever accuse the late American diplomat of missing such an opportunity, but the scene spoke volumes of the Europeans’ failure to bring about peace in their own back yard. The termination of the ruinous war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was very much America’s doing.

Cut to Holbrooke’s final assignment, as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, the diplomat seemed mislaid in a policy that remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. US President Barack Obama has sought a victory in Afghanistan, but would be satisfied with a draw, which may well lead to a defeat. And to prove his long-term commitment to the Afghans, the US president is dedicated to begin withdrawing troops by as soon as next summer. And though the fight may be in Afghanistan, the victory lies in Pakistan, but success is proving so difficult in Pakistan, that America’s determination to stick it out in Afghanistan is waning rapidly.

You get the point. Or perhaps not.

You could say many things about the former US president, Bill Clinton, but when he finally, and very reluctantly and shamefacedly, sank his teeth into resolving the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He gave Holbrooke and the US military the latitude they needed to bring home a solution. With Obama, however, Holbrooke was one among what usually seemed to be too many cooks – between the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry (with whom Holbrooke clashed), General David Petraeus, the military commander in Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose briefs all involve blending politics with military policy.

Holbrooke was too experienced not to know a stumbling thing when he saw it. Obama’s Afghan-Pakistan plan was surely too hazy for a man of sharp angles, and it seems he was less and less convinced by his mission. Near the end, after being rushed to the hospital, a doctor told him to relax. He allegedly joked that it was difficult to relax given his worries about the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan – one of those smart-alecky answers that probably revealed genuine concern.

To get a sense of the foreign policy Holbrooke felt most comfortable with, we should recall that he helped the late Clark Clifford, an advisor to numerous Democratic presidents, write his memoirs during the 1980s. Clifford was among the smoothest mandarins of the postwar American empire – a lawyer who could make the big deals and clean up the small messes. But he was also the personification of American foreign policy pragmatism during the Cold War, of the famed bipartisan consensus, someone who could glide effortlessly between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, between money and political authority. Inherent in such individuals was a conceit that the United States could place its rationalism and goodwill at the service of power; that while idealism may have been an illusion, there were certain ways of doing things overseas – calm, collected ways – and that they, as individuals, were best equipped to recommend those ways.

There was certainly smugness here, but also considerably less confusion about what the United States represented. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Clinton had wanted to steer away from the conflict, but the brutish siege of Sarajevo and the butchery in Srebrenica had brought him around. He couldn’t resist the public condemnation that his unresponsiveness to human suffering was bringing down on his shoulders. So, politically, he changed tack; but he also did so because he had to satisfy an ambient sense of what the US stood for.

You have to ask whether Barack Obama, in his haste to accelerate the American departure from Iraq, while outlining a similar process in Afghanistan, has such a sense? Holbrooke was no romantic naïf standing against Obama’s heartlessness when it came to foreign matters. The president is facing difficult times. But Obama does frequently look like a vicar counting his alms, when Holbrooke was made of larger, more combustible material. His fire was a sense of what America could get right, not what America has done wrong.

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