Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke is of course a key player in both the books I wrote about last week. For Halberstam, Holbrooke was one of the few insiders within the Clinton White House proactive enough to deserve sympathy or success:

Of all the people who had joined the Clinton administration in 1993, Dick Holbrooke ended the eight years, by the consensus of his peers – or at least among those who still intended to serve in a future Democratic administration – as the most successful member of the foreign policy team. Madeleine Albright might be, in terms of celebrity star power, at least momentarily a larger figure because of the nature of her personal story; and because she was the first woman secretary of state, her memoirs would probably sell for a larger sum than those of anyone else who had worked in foreign policy. But it was Holbrooke who had truly impressed his peers, even many who had been dubious of him earlier on. [War In A Time of Peace, pg. 484]

This from a writer himself rather dubious of Clinton’s foreign policy aides, and from a book which includes the entry ‘ego of’ under Holbrooke’s name (there are six page references). Much of the media coverage today is rightly focusing on the hole he leaves at the centre of Obama’s AfPak team, and Bob Woodward quotes him as insisting that, “Our [US] presence [in Afghanistan] is the corrupting force” [Obama’s Wars, pg. 225]; the WaPo obituary suggests that his final last words were, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” This sort of voice will be missed around a table of men and women often more gung-ho than all that. But, and FP Passport summarises Holbrooke’s frustrations under Obama pretty well, he will likely best be remembered for all that heavy lifting in the 1990s.

6 thoughts on “Richard Holbrooke

  1. I think it is telling that much of the coverage around his death has been nebulous but fixated upon his being a ‘towering figure’ with an ‘imposing personality’ and ‘physical presence’.

    I think that Obama – far more at home with grand gestures in the field of foreign policy than actual foreign policy – was using Holbrooke as a political symbol but I doubt that he had very much input. If those were indeed his final words they doubtless came from a place of real frustration and desperation.

    I think that Obama lost a potent political symbol but I don’t think he was listening to the man’s advice.

  2. Agreed – again in the Woodward, Holbrooke pretty much comes out and says exactly that. There was something of the mood music to Holbrooke’s appointment – an affirmation for the old guard, and a nod to the doves. But certainly the current policy is not one which Holbrooke could have full-throatedly endorsed.

    Nevertheless, as skilled a negotiator will be hard to find, whatever the ultimate policy.

  3. Part of the problem is that there are vanishingly few Democratic grandees when it comes to foreign policy.

    There’s Jimmy Carter but beyond that they’ve pretty much got nobody.

    This is due to the fact that arguably since JFK and LBJ, the Democrats have lacked a coherent foreign policy position or idea of America’s role in the world. Out of office they are ‘doves’ who are broadly in favour of increased cooperation but in power they immediately move to the right. Indeed, the Clinton regime effectively laid the foundations for the invasion of Iraq by moving WMD policy from State to Defense.

    This is due, in no small part, to the fact that, prior to Clinton, the Dems had been out of power for a LONG time. When Clinton got into power he didn’t have any experienced advisors and eight years later the problem is now compounded.

    This is partly why Obama has kept so many Bush appointees in position. He has zero experience in foreign affairs and he doesn’t have that many experienced Democratic advisors to draw on.

    Holbrooke, for all his faults, was one of the few big beasts the Democrats had in the field of foreign affairs which makes his evident isolation both frustrating and utterly damning.

  4. Yes, though I might suggest that the Democrats don’t have much of a narrative for anything, and that this is a long-term issue for them which extends far beyond foreign policy.

    In addition, whilst you’re right about Republican experience, I’m less clear that the Republicans are any better placed with big foreign policy beasts: would we really put Condeleeza Rice or Dick Cheney in Holbrooke’s set? Brent Scowcroft et al are surely not long for this world, either.

    But in the main – yes, if Obama was being led by the nose with Holbrooke onboard, he’s a yet poorer Democratic president without him.

  5. I think that there’s probably something to be said for the idea that the Republicans are also running low on big beasts now that their foreign policy has been largely disgraced but the backbone of the Bush government was made up of grandees dating back to the time of Reagan.

    The disgrace of the neocons is reflected in a wider problem of intellectual bankruptcy amidst Republicans but it is worrying that Obama seems to be drawing upon the dregs of the Republican talent pool rather than seeking to create a new Democratic pool of talent. That speaks partly to a lack of talent in Democratic ranks but also to a real timidity and lack of forethought on Obama’s part.

  6. The fact that Bush, too, was relying on increasingly decrepid foreign policy grandees says it all, though, doesn’t it? The next GOP president will find their team significantly thinner on the ground – though I tend to think think, sadly, that there’s more mileage in S.P. Huntington, at least amongst the more ignorant (and currently more visible) wings of the party, than you seem to assume…

    The problem, perhaps, is not just Obama’s: a failure to think differently about how to ‘do’ foreign policy in an increasingly multilateral world may be at the heart of the non-emergence of a new generation of foreign policy elites. When the current SoS is a failed presidential candidate actively mocked during her campaign for over-stating her minuscule foreign experience, there’s something not quite right going on. (And who are the candidates to be the next Republican SoS? It doesn’t seem so very much clearer.)

    In Obama’s defence (or not, given that one of his appointments was the inexperienced Leon Panetta), he did pretty much swap over the highest levels of the intelligence and security staff. Where else are you seeing the Bush holdover? It must be said, after all, that Gates emerges from the Woodward as one of Obama’s most quietly effective aides…

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