The Obama Administration, Richard Holbrooke, and AfPak Policy Chaos

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 17, 2011

My respect for the late Richard Holbrooke notwithstanding, I certainly don’t think that his work and judgments on AfPak policy have been infallible. In fact, at one point, I actually called for him to resign. But perhaps I might have reconsidered my call, if I had known that from the outset, despite his supposedly special position in the State Department, and despite the importance of getting AfPak policy right, Richard Holbrooke received little support from the Obama White House in his endeavors:

The memorial service at Washington’s Kennedy Center last week had the trappings of a state funeral. President Barack Obama was there, former president Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan flew in for the occasion, as did scores of other dignitaries. The man they came to honor, Richard Holbrooke, had been a diplomat on and off for more than 40 years when he died last month at the age of 69. He might have been secretary of state, but never was, and may well have deserved a Nobel Prize for bringing the Bosnian war to an end in 1995, but never got it. Never mind. As Obama said in his tribute, “By the time I came to know Richard, his place in history was assured.” Holbrooke would have gotten a chuckle out of it all, especially listening to the president paying such homage. He could have used some more of that support when he was still on the job.

[. . .]

Holbrooke’s critics suggest (off the record, because they don’t want to sound churlish now that he’s gone) that he was his own worst enemy. But that’s misleading. Interviews with those who knew Holbrooke in Kabul, Islamabad, New York, Brussels, and Washington make clear he had a great many adversaries. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai treated him with paranoid fury. Pakistan’s leaders sometimes lied to him, and about him. The Taliban tried to take him out with sniper fire and suicide bombers. And among those who worked to undermine the man, even to the detriment of his vital mission, were at least a few people in the White House who understood neither the man nor, indeed, his mission.

“Dick Holbrooke would have been Obama’s best ally,” lamented Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, one of his contemporaries and closest friends. “Obama had just the right hammer he needed in Dick for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Obama’s failure to see that—and his staff’s failure to see that—really cost him and our country. What in God’s name would make you not make full use of Dick Holbrooke?”

Read the whole thing, and you will find that Holbrooke had to fight various principals within the Administration just as hard as he had to fight the effects of a Taliban insurgency, corruption and political incompetence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a President who was, at best, indifferent to the nature of Holbrooke’s mission. Again, Holbrooke wasn’t perfect; he had an outsized ego, a manic personality that would grate on others, and lacked what Kori Schake calls the “fine Florentine touch for orchestrating outcomes” possessed by Robert Gates, a far more successful advocate on Afghanistan than Holbrooke ever was. But none of this justified undercutting Richard Holbrooke almost immediately after he was appointed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Appointing Richard Holbrooke was supposed to mean something. Namely, it was supposed to mean that the Obama Administration would use his gifts and his outsized standing in the foreign policy community to get positive results in the formulation and implementation of AfPak policy. One might understand failure after a best effort in search of those goals, but it is impossible to understand or respect a half-hearted effort to reach those goals, and a total failure on the part of the Administration to use Holbrooke’s talents and experience to try to bring about good policy outcomes. As the article notes, while Holbrooke himself knew that he could only be tolerated in small doses by some in the Administration, “people [at the White House] before at least had respect for what I have to say.”

Maybe more could have been achieved regarding AfPak policy if Richard Holbrooke were genuinely appreciated as a member of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team. We’ll never know whether that might have been the case, but wouldn’t it have been better for the Administration to have worked with Holbrooke, rather than against him from the outset, as they did? And what precisely does this soap opera-ish behavior tell us of the supposedly “no drama Obama” Administration? The Administration’s foreign policy team does not seem to be cool, calm, and collected. Rather, it appears to be riven by envy, and plagued with chaos.

  • Moochy

    “What in God’s name would make you not make full use of Dick Holbrooke?”

    Obama. Democrats. Idiots.

    What more do you need to know?

  • observer

    No, the Obama administration’s foreign policy team is not cool, calm and collected. Nor are they knowledgeable about foreign affairs. I’d give examples for that last statement, but the examples would take too much bandwidth. The most amazing part of this dynamic, though, is the lack of self-awareness on their part: they really do not understand just how poor a job they are doing and how poorly they are seen by other governments. F

  • Greyhawk

    Note presence of his name in “Clinton:” column, and lack of Chicago address or election campaign experience. He was a disaster for Af/Pak policy, but that’s beside the point. Others who aren’t fail the key tests, too.

  • Micha Elyi

    I had known that from the outset, despite his supposedly special position in the State Department, and despite the importance of getting AfPak policy right, Richard Holbrooke received little support from the Obama White House in his endeavors…

    All the more reason for Holbrooke to make a principled resignation rather than being a human shield for Obama.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    I’m not sure there is an Obama Administration FP team. I saw a brief glimpse of Hillary making some pronouncement where she said “the Obama Administration has a position…”. It struck me that the Secretary of State has (and should) always used the language “it is the position of the United States”. Failing to realize or take advantage of the full power and prestige of the USA is a crime.

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