Obama and the Holbrooke Imperative


Richard Holbrooke triggers incredible passion, some of it negative, among foreign policy professionals. He’s a Democrat, but many don’t understand why he’s not a Republican. Dems, some argue, are supposed to be about achieving moral goods in the world along purist pathways of good behavior and enlightened intentions. To some Holbrooke seems to be someone willing to deploy any tools that it takes to achieve his (and America’s) ends, and that puts him at odds with many in the so-called global justice community.
I’m going to frustrate a number of my friends — but the veneer and appearance of moral flexibility is why I very much like Richard Holbrooke. In a way, he’s a Kissinger applied to moral purposes.
I actually think that Holbrooke is highly moral, focused ferociously on principle, and at the same time highly flexible on how he actually achieves results that the nation and world need. As just one of many examples, I observed Holbrooke do a deal with Jesse Helms, the face of American pugnacious nationalism of the kind that John Bolton now represents. Holbrooke got Jesse Helms to visit “the lion’s den” as Helms referred to the UN Security Council and agree to pay up on dues the U.S. owed the United Nations in exchange for UN reforms that were needed anyway. Holbrooke — over the objections of some advising Obama at senior levels today (as well as the Russians and Chinese) — got the UN Security Council to consider AIDS on its security agenda. This was the first time in history that any health issue was considered by the UNSC in national security terms.
As another example, he has turned what was a small time HIV prevention gig that Kofi Annan asked him to lead into the powerhouse Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, a now huge global force in which 225 of the world’s largest corporations are engaged in stopping the spread of this community and continent debilitating virus.
Successful heads of state — inspirational and committed to international peace and progress or not — often have strategists and global arm-twisters at their side along the lines of a Holbrooke, a Brzezinski, or a Kissinger. They are masters of gray in a world of leaders and citizens who prefer black and white. They wrestle with the highly improbable and generate possibilities. Holbrooke did this in the Dayton Accords. They are ruthless, shrewd, and morally elastic in hitting their targets.
Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has asserted that his survival in obscurity for the last decade was based upon an arrangement with Holbrooke that brought the Bosnian War to an end. This so-called “deal” was not concocted as part of Dayton but actually at a time in July 1996 when Holbrooke was a private citizen. Karadzic is asserting that he stepped down from power in an arrangement brokered by Holbrooke in exchange for “not being pursued.” The fact is that NATO would not arrest Karadzic even though Holbrooke while still working for the Clinton administration had pushed for that.
The State Department and Holbrooke have both firmly denied Karadzic’s claim. In fact, Karadzic in nearly the same breath has referred to Holbrooke as his “liquidator” and suggests that Holbrooke must be frustrated that the International Criminal Court is prohibited from sentencing Karadzic to a death sentence. (Holbrooke’s account of his deal-making ran here in the Washington Post)
But on a theoretical level, conflicts and the challenge of ending them are filled with hard choices. Achieving a stand-down, establishing an equilibrium, stopping the killing, and hopefully achieving peace are not done through hugging platitudes. Karadzic deserves to be tried for crimes against humanity but had there been a theoretical deal that led to an end to that conflict and the deaths of many more thousands, I would have understood it. Holbrooke did not do a deal “not to pursue” Karadzik — though a Kissinger might have, and frankly I myself might have.
Karadzic, who Holbrooke said “would have made a good Nazi,” is trying to defame Holbrooke for terminating his grasp on power — but the fact is that in all of the deals and agreements that he forged at Dayton, Holbrooke pulled off a near miraculous result that has largely endured. That is genuine political and moral achievement. Regrettably, some of the global justice purists around Obama who have not achieved results have a hard time accepting a Holbrookian approach to problem solving.
Barack Obama needs someone in close proximity on his foreign policy team that the world knows is tenaciously committed to outcomes and that it fears just a bit. Obama needs to be about hope, about light — but he needs someone who can pursue and defend American interests against thugs in the dark.
In my view, Obama needs a Holbrooke-type player on his team. The world is a far more dangerous place today than it was eight years ago. The global equilibrium that used to exist was decimated when George W. Bush punctured the mystique of American power by invading Iraq and showing our now financial and military limits to allies and foes alike. Obama needs a Holbrooke — and since Holbrooke himself is available, he should strongly consider making him Secretary of State.
Beneath the hype and theater of global enthusiasm for Obama, there is real doubt about America’s seriousness and capacity to confront global problems. The world will want to know what America will do to achieve results. What will the US gamble? When will force be used in the future? What are America’s highest priorities when there are so many things that need attention? What is rhetoric and what is real?
To benchmark this new president, America’s allies will test, kick and provoke a potential Obama White House as much as foes and rivals will. The window for a proactive national security agenda is very narrow — and it’s highly likely that events generated abroad, designed crises if you will, will force Obama into a continuation of the kind of ad hoc, reactive policy making we have today.
Team Obama needs to do all it can to prevent this from happening.
Whether it is Holbrooke or not, Obama needs Holbrooke-like characters who can really deal with the worst edge of problem states and problem leaders.
Holbrooke is not on the list of Obama’s National Security Working Group — but without him it’s sort of like Eminem’s lyrics in “Without Me“. Holbrooke’s absence on the list reminds and highlights why his presence is even more essential.
I have to state two things before closing.
First, few of my close friends in national security circles — particularly those close to Senator Obama — agree with me. A few do, and they are right.
Secondly, I should acknowledge that Richard Holbrooke’s wife, Kati Marton, is a member of the Board of Directors of the New America Foundation where I work. But I’ve been at odds with board members before — and also have supported them and their causes depending on my own views. Holbrooke probably would not have want written what I have shared here — but I felt I should disclose this connection.
There are others who would also make incredible choices as Secretary of State — including Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, and others.
But Holbrooke needs to be in the highest tier mix. He is genetically designed to be in that role — and will be at some point — even if for only a year or two before transitioning to a Secretary of State of the kinder, gentler sort.
But if elected, Obama needs a modern Machiavelli to help him, counsel him, and protect him in international affairs — and the best Holbrookian character to get is Holbrooke himself.
— Steve Clemons


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