A few hours before Richard Holbrooke’s death on December 13, Hillary Clinton told a group of top U.S. diplomats at a State Department Christmas party that he was “practically synonymous with American foreign policy.” Her assessment is correct: Holbrooke’s career embodies some of its least attractive and most deeply flawed traits.
Holbrooke started as a low-level participant in an American political debacle, in and on Vietnam (1962-69). Following Holbrooke’s stint at Foreign Policy, in 1977 Jimmy Carter appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. In that position he was instrumental in securing continued U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and authorized arms deliveries to Indonesia in violation of the supposed U.S. arms embargo against Suharto’s regime.
It was during this period that the suppression of the Christian Timorese by the Muslim Indonesians reached genocidal levels, killing 200,000 people, nearly a third of the island’s population. Holbrooke’s response to a reporter’s question about that tragedy, to which he had directly contributed, was illustrative:
I want to stress I am not remotely interested in getting involved in an argument over the actual number of people killed. People were killed and that always is a tragedy but what is at issue is the actual situation in Timor today . . . [As for the numbers of victims] we are never going to know anyway.
Holbrooke lied to Congress in 1979 when he asserted that the famine in East Timor—caused by the Indonesian army’s scorched-earth campaign—was a belated consequence of Portuguese colonial misrule. Two decades later, in a lavish tribute to the diplomatic skill of his friend Paul Wolfowitz—U.S. ambassador to Indonesia at that time—Holbrooke boasted how “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep East Timor out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.”
In the 1990’s a gap began to grow between the avowed objectives of U.S. foreign policy and the specifics of its implementation by the Clinton administration. Nowhere was this discrepancy more apparent than in the Balkans. Clinton decided from the outset to support the Muslims, and nobody was more zealous in the application of that policy than Richard Holbrooke. Not even the arrival of foreign mujahideen in Bosnia—which he called “a pact with the devil”—could alter his simplistic paradigm of Serb aggressors who should be bombed and Muslims victims who should be armed.
Far from “bringing peace to Bosnia” at Dayton in 1995, Holbrooke presided over the imposition of a package broadly similar to the 1992 Lisbon Plan brokered by the European Union—the deal that could have avoided the war altogether but which was deliberately torpedoed by Washington. NATO was transformed into a tool of U.S. hegemony, and American dominance in European affairs was renewed to an extent not seen since Kennedy. That outcome had been Holbrooke’s objective all along. He and the interventionists prevailed in 1995, and their narrative still dominates the public discourse today. Holbrooke wrote in his self-serving memoir, To End a War, that Dayton demonstrated that Europeans were not capable of resolving their own problems and that America was still the “indispensable nation.” The Bosnian settlement he arranged was not unlike a plausible compromise that would have been reached much earlier, had Washington remained on the sidelines; but the meaning of Dayton was evident from Holbrooke’s boast, a year later, that “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.”
As special representative to Cyprus in 1997, Holbrooke irritated the Europeans by his strident advocacy of Turkey’s membership in the European Union and his refusal to call Ankara to task for its brutal campaign against the Kurds. British diplomat Sir David Hannay, one of the key European actors in the Cyprus process, was dismayed at Holbrooke’s statement that Turkey’s entrance into the European Union was the key to resolving the problem of Cyprus: “Holbrooke was showing impatience with my statements regarding the complexity of the negotiations.”
Holbrooke’s preference for Muslim Turks over Christian Greeks in Cyprus reflected a consistent bipartisan trend in U.S. foreign policy. Holbrooke was not the creator of that trend, but he was an enthusiastic supporter. Three years ago, with Turkey’s re-Islamization well advanced, he continued to claim that Turkey was an open society and that “its Western identity put down firm roots.”
Özdem Sanberk, Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary in the early 90’s, recalled an encounter with Holbrooke in Ankara: “After the official talks, he pulled me aside and told me that Turkey should help the Bosnian Muslims. ‘If you want to send arms to them, we will help you,’ he told me.” This episode illustrates the extent to which the policies Holbrooke advocated were based on the expectation that satisfying Muslim ambitions in a secondary theater would improve U.S. standing in the Islamic world as a whole. That expectation has never materialized.
In 1998 he was back in the Balkans, preparing the ground for Clinton’s Kosovo war. On June 24 he met the KLA commander Gani Shehu in Junik, near the Yugoslav-Albanian border, dutifully taking his shoes off like a good dhimmi. He promised U.S. support for the KLA campaign of violence against the Serbs. Earlier that year Clinton’s Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard correctly characterized the KLA as a terrorist organization. Holbrooke’s visit signified a change of policy, turned the KLA into “freedom fighters,” and directly led to the stage-managed “massacre” at Racak, to Rambouillet, the NATO bombing, and Kosovo’s transformation into a jihadist mafia state. When acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott asked his opinion on “resolving” the Kosovo problem, Holbrooke replied that he wanted “bombing for peace”: “This is a critical moment for us personally. A responsibility of the nation. And the right thing to do. If the negotiations fail because of the bombing, so be it. Bombing is the right thing to do.”
As Al Gore’s advisor during the 2000 presidential campaign, Holbrooke praised his Republican friend Paul Wolfowitz, saying that his career illustrated “the degree to which there are still common themes between the parties.” Indeed, they are based on a common interventionist outlook, and on the Straussian dictum that perpetual manipulation of the masses by those in power is good and necessary. Both men affirmed the right of the United States to intervene when and where she believed it necessary. The administrations they served may have differed in some shades of rhetoric, but they were one single regime, identical in substance and consequence.
Richard Holbrooke combined the neoconservative zeal for America’s open-ended “engagement” and global power projection with the neoliberal ideological justifications for such engagement: to liberate and transform the world. This demonic blend, to which he subscribed without a hint of self-doubt, was his formula for success. It ensured that he would be liked, respected, and supported by bad people from both camps. It also helped him do well financially when out of government. He was, among numerous other appointments, managing director of Lehman Brothers and a director of AIG when it engaged in wildly speculative credit default insurance schemes that eventually cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars.
In his last post, as the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke was an outright failure. He favored the surge in Afghanistan that cost American lives and treasure while achieving exactly nothing in terms of the strategic equation. The Karzai regime is as untenable and corrupt as it was before Holbrooke’s arrival on the scene, the Afghan security forces are as ineffective and unreliable as they were while George W. Bush was still in the White House, and Pakistan’s military intelligence is still playing its old game of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds. Yet Holbrooke’s “towering, one-of-a-kind presence” (the Washington Post) was not much in evidence in that neuralgic part of the world following his appointment in January 2009. It did not require a diplomatic genius, but merely a brave man of solid instincts and common sense, to tell Obama that the Afghan endeavor was doomed and should be terminated. Holbrooke did not possess any of those qualities.
The most eloquent epitaphs are often crafted while the person is still alive. Borrowing a page out of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic manual, Vice President Joe Biden called him “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.” Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide said last November of Holbrooke’s Afghan performance, “This is not the Balkans, where you can bully people into accepting a solution.” Eide added that the U.S. special envoy did not fully grasp “the complexity of the Afghan political scene.”
It has been reported that Holbrooke’s final words to his doctor, just before the operation from which he was not to recover, were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan!” If uttered earnestly and not in jest (as the White House subsequently claimed), this sentence provides the only hint of doubt or ambivalence in his entire career about the wisdom of U.S. policies.
Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s “prime minister,” wrote in a telegram to President Obama on December 14 that “the death of Richard Holbrooke is a loss of a friend.” The following day he proposed naming a square after Holbrooke in the provincial capital of Pristina. The proposal is apt and should be adopted. That Thaçi and his fellow KLA organ harvesters and heroin traders are in charge of Kosovo is Richard Holbrooke’s defining legacy.
Holbrooke was not, as Time would have us believe, “tactically brilliant and capable of the finest strategic judgment . . . possessing high principles and real, deep compassion,” and he was not—or, at least, should not be—an “inspiration” to the rest of us, as the New York Times obituarist claimed. Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was a bad man who advocated and implemented bad policies. In his words, actions, and ambitions he sinned against God and man, and specifically against his fellow countrymen. He devoted his life to the relentless pursuit of power and to its use in a manner separate from, and contrary to, the American interest and American tradition.