Richard Holbrooke and the Clinton Curse

by , December 21, 2010

You know it’s bad when the cable news networks were no longer leading off with Richard Holbrooke, less than 24 hours after his unexpected death on Dec. 13.

Instead, the passing of the 69-year-old career diplomat and special envoy to Afghanistan-Pakistan was bumped on Dec. 14 for yet another tedious political ping-pong story involving the senate tax bill, a report no one likely remembered, say, past Dec. 15. Within a day, Holbrooke the man became less of a headline than speculation over the “hole” he is supposedly leaving in President Obama’s foundering war strategy. Hardly the desired end for a man who 15 years ago– if not two years ago – would have garnered a much more grandiose postmortem, one fit for winning war generals and the like. He had after all, inspired such monikers over the years as “giant,” “bulldozer” and “raging bull,” and was lavishly credited with “ending” the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.

Instead, Holbrooke seems to be the latest, most explicit victim of the Clinton Curse.

Let me explain.

Exactly two years ago, I wrote, “Clinton Cabinet: The politics of change look surprisingly familiar,” for The American Conservative, the premise of which was that the new Obama Administration, fresh from a nasty primary battle with Hillary Clinton, and an even nastier election against Republican John McCain, seemed to be relying a bit too heavily on the older Democratic regime – out of fear, lack of confidence, perhaps a Faustian bargain forged to end the primary – but nonetheless it had raised eyebrows at the time.

“Clintonites are everywhere!” declared Politico on Nov. 14, 2008, a scant few days after the election and amid rumors that Obama and Clinton had met privately for undisclosed reasons that we now know must’ve had something to do with her becoming the next Secretary of State.

“Obama’s victory in the general election produced what his primary campaign couldn’t: A swift merger of the Clinton Wing of the Democratic Party with the Illinois Senator’s self-styled insurgency. … The absorption of the Clinton government in-waiting represents Obama’s choice not to repeat what he and his advisers see as an early mistake made by the last two presidents: Attempting to wield power in Washington through an insular campaign apparatus new to town.”

Richard Holbrooke

One needs only to look at Hillary Clinton’s eerily robotic posture as she eulogized her decades-old friend in an official State Department briefing last week, to sense that the “merger” has been less fruitful than anticipated. The most she could offer about Holbrooke’s recent contributions is he “accomplished so much.” But what could she really say outside of the sanctioned (sanitized) bio that typically begins with his time as a Kennedy-driven foreign service officer in Vietnam, and ends with the Dayton Accords? Like Holbrooke, her own star has dimmed in the last two years and newsworthy achievements very far and few to come by. Clinton’s status as the heroic female politician who strode election campaigns, scandal and the minefield of congress with the determination of Patton, has been reduced in spirit to that of a methodical “senior stateswoman,” and certainly not in any exciting way. As of today, she will hardly be known to have advanced her office beyond that of her predecessors, particularly from behind the tall and glowering shadow of the military overseas and in Washington, or to have claimed any glory for herself or the President. She oftentimes looks wan, and kind of like a Stepford diplomat.

But how the speculation soared in December 2008! “So ascendant are the Clintonistas,” I wrote then, “that it’s hard to believe Hillary lost.” At that time, not less than half of the 50 people already appointed to Obama’s transition teams or staff jobs had Clinton connections, including all but one of his important 12-member advisory board.

Then, the Clinton era still induced heavy nostalgia among a wide swath of Democrats, who had raised Hillary and President Bill Clinton up as the super couple that had resurrected Camelot, reaffirmed their liberal ideals, and saw the country, right up to the millennium, through a period of economic growth and peace. In this forgiving light, everything smelled sweet (though lots of us knew it stunk), but it didn’t matter, by the time Obama, a relative hayseed in comparison, was inaugurated, most Democrats welcomed the Clintons back into the bosom of Washington, and saw them not as an intrusion, but as a necessary ally and bulwark for the tough times ahead.

How could anyone forget the ink spilled in spinning the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, just a few days after the 2008 election? Emanuel was a Clintonista and political animal of the first order, who was given the nickname “Rahmbo” when he served in the House, and was known as a “fierce and consummate navigator of the capital’s political terrain,” and was supposed to serve as Obama’s chief whip, enforcer and negotiator for the restive congress. At the time of his appointment, Emanuel said his goal was to “deliver the change America needs,” and to “help summon Americans of both parties to unite in common purpose.” Most people who knew Rahmbo knew better.

Rahm Emanuel

Turns out if Rahm were Rambo there would have never have been a sequel. From the beginning, the only “unity” on the Hill turned out to be the Republicans in attacking every move Obama made. The burgeoning Tea Party forced Obama on the defense the entire summer of 2009, scattering Democratic unity over health care reform legislation, which became an albatross rather a feather for the new administration’s cap. Any “triangulation” on the part of the president that might have worked when Emanuel was serving as a top aide in the Clinton administration, only made Obama look pensive and weak and soon he disappointed everyone, left and right alike. Meanwhile, Emanuel was tainted by the Blagojevich scandal and seemed pretty ineffective on all other serious fronts, particularly in helping Obama rise above the fray of partisanship, and attacks of socialism in the economic ring. He resigned almost two years to the day of his appointment, ostensibly to run for Mayor of Chicago, but there were rumors of his leaving for months, which hardly inspired confidence, seeing the reports began during the worst environmental disaster in U.S history and presidential approval ratings of 38 percent.

No doubt, Emanuel looks smaller than when he went in. Trim away the fat of folklore and hype and you have just another Machiavellian pol. Meanwhile, the first two critical years of Obama’s presidency were marred by infighting and confusion, just what he had hired Emanuel to help him avoid.

Then there’s Lawrence Summers, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard University, who at the time of his own appointment as director of Obama’s National Economic Council was touted as a “brilliant” thinker who would “ensure the NEC is returned to its place as the clearing house for policy ideas and initiatives.” He later went on to be the architect of the $850 billion stimulus package and the bailout of the auto industry, flashpoints for the landslide victory of Republicans in the recent midterm elections. Democrat or Republican, voters have been ambivalent about Obama’s economic policies because the big “bail outs” have yet to translate into any practical payoff for the average American.

Meanwhile, Summers is bailing in a week, headed back to Harvard with his brilliant mind and little glory under his big belt. Sure, there are plenty of people, like New Yorker columnist John Cassidy, who say Summers “got things largely right,” and “for this, at least, we owe him some gratitude.” But tell that to the poor sap down the street pulling two jobs to put food on the table while pay on Wall Street is set to increase for a second consecutive year, hitting a record high of $144 billion. Sure he “did his job” – but not for anyone without an office with a 212 prefix or a home address in Greenwich or Westchester County or the like.

Let’s face it, getting “things largely right” doesn’t really cut it for the history books. 

And who will really remember – or care – that Hillary introduced the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review? And the fact that Holbrooke kept much of his angst about the way the military was handling the war private won’t earn him more than a footnote when we scour over the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan 50 years from now.

Hillary Clinton

Fact is, for all of their heft and promise, they were both overwhelmed by the military’s micromanagement of the wars and of foreign policy overseas, and whatever talents they might have brought to the table suffered for it. This is ironic, because Clinton had so assiduously courted and cultivated military types during her stint as senator and as a presidential candidate. Now she has to fight for every dollar just to do her job in Afghanistan, and listen to the high hats in the E Ring say they are tired of doing all the work for her!

Meanwhile Holbrooke was publicly ridiculed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as documented in Michael Hastings’s powerhouse profile in Rolling Stone. But Holbrooke was no dove – as assistant secretary of state under Clinton, he had pressed the White House hard to militarily intervene in the Bosnian conflict by bombing Serbia in 1994, and had been a staunch advocate for muscular, interventionist American foreign policy as a show of moral authority.

In his own memoir, To End a War, he wrote, “There will be other Bosnias in our lives … areas where early outside involvement can be decisive and American leadership will be required. … The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace.”

Holbrooke was backed up by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who told an aghast Colin Powell at the time, “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Under President Bush and after 9/11, the military transcended its civilian-handler relationship and couldn’t seemingly care less whether Holbrooke was a hawk or a dove or had supported the invasion of Iraq. They didn’t seem to “get” Holbrooke’s magic, and when he supposedly turned on the Pentagon’s plans to escalate the war through COIN, (again privately) it led to the parting and to the ridicule and mistrust.

What a turnaround. Two years ago when he was tapped by Obama to be the special envoy to the region, the appointment was accompanied by the usual panegyrics to his diplomatic prowess, expanding upon the theme that the “adults” were back in charge. When he made his first trip to the region, writer David Ignatius described it as “an unusual exercise in strategic listening,” and a “bravura diplomatic show” that “seemed to have the desired effect.”

To say Holbrooke did not deliver is an understatement. To be fair, the odds were not in his favor. And the political conditions were immune to his formula. When he tried to give Afghan President Hamid Karzai the “raging bull” treatment over the fraudulent president elections in August 2009, he ended up narrowing his own role in the process. Two months later, the press was asking, “Where’s Dick?”

“We’re in the midst of the biggest political crisis in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001…

“Where then is Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan? …

“A quick check of the State Department Web site shows that Holbrooke’s last public appearance before the media was nearly a month ago, during the UN General Assembly in New York.

“Coincidence? We thought not.”

He didn’t give up, however, even if he was toiling more in the shadows than he was used to during the Bosnian conflict. There is a dispute over his last words, though if one were writing this as a tragedy it would seem that the war was one adversary he could not charm or intimidate, nor throw his weight at. In fact, in the end, the trying probably killed him (I’m not being presumptuous, exactly. It was only eight months ago that his doctor told him he might have clogged heart arteries, yet he told his staff it was “routine” and pledged to get back overseas ASAP).

On one hand it’s clear that these underperforming Clintonites suffer from a bad case of unrealistic expectations, generated by decades of myth-making by the Fourth Estate, assorted hagiographers and political strivers. And it still goes on habitually if not completely wholeheartedly, in the wake of Holbrooke’s death: over the weekend Vice President Biden called Holbrooke a “warrior for peace,” and Senator John Kerry spoke of all the “lives saved” by Holbrooke. Surely the mainstream media never talks about all the bloodshed caused by Holbrooke’s career-long machinations, his support for Iraq, the biggest foreign policy blunder in recent history.

No doubt there will be plenty of talk about the failures of peace despite his heroic attempts to achieve it, but let’s hope, especially now that some of the Clinton glamour is wearing off, there will be more analysis over his failure to achieve it.

On the other hand, while we know how the military may have squeezed them to the side, how much has the Obama Administration marginalized or flat-out sabotaged the Clintonistas’ game since bringing them all on board? The story of old Clinton pal and administration counsel Greg Craig comes to mind. Some, like political science professor Terry Madonna at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, suggest Obama is the problem.

“The President sets the overall direction in foreign policy as you know, and Obama has not projected an America of strength and determination but she still gets to do the implementation,” he told Antiwar.com “It is unusual for so many key folks to leave before the midterm as we have had with this administration—again that does not project an administration that has developed any consistency in its decision making process.”

It’s often said that Obama wanted to “keep his enemies close” but has never trusted their close counsel. In his book Obama’s Wars, author Bob Woodward said Holbrooke knew the President “didn’t care for him”; that the two men didn’t connect, suggesting the only reason Holbrooke was on board was at Hillary’s behest, or that Holbrooke’s larger-than-life reputation had bedazzled Obama, who was desperate over the “Af-Pak” dilemma. Maybe a little of both. But the spell apparently wore off quite quickly.

Then there is the case of the Clintons being the curse – the Clintonistas being bred on hardscrabble politics at home and an inflated sense of moral exceptionalism abroad, dooming Obama from the start. If anything, the recent WikiLeaks cables prove little has changed on this front in 20 years.

Holbrooke’s death only puts all of these ironies into starker relief. He fell victim to the very curse he had helped perpetuate.

Yes, Strobe Talbott once called Holbrooke the “diplomatic equivalent of the hydrogen bomb.” It could very well be that he self-destructed, and only history will tell us how much the Clintonistas really had a hand in destroying. But with him, perhaps the myth of neo-Camelot will soon be buried, too.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos