Richard Holbrooke: Bulldozer Stuck in the Mud

Strobe Talbott once called Richard Holbrooke the "diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb."

Oh, the many ways we could interpret that today.

When Talbott, Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state and a friend of Holbrooke, made that comment to the New York Times in February 2009, Holbrooke was riding a wave of fairly breathless publicity in the wake of his appointment as special envoy to the Afghanistan-Pakistan ("Af-Pak") region. A former Clinton administration diplomat who cultivated near-hero status as chief architect of the war-ending Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia in 1995, Holbrooke basked in the hopeful tenor of the new Obama administration and a wave of sycophantic media coverage that suggested that regional leaders – both friend and foe – were no match for his diplomatic prowess and tenacity.

Though not entirely falling into this trap, NYT writer Jodi Kantor nonetheless made Holbrooke’s appointment an event, not quite calling it a potential game-changer, but close. The media loves to tie personalities to policy, whether they ultimately fit or not. After 9/11, it was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. During the so-called "Surge" in Iraq, it was Gen. David Petraeus. And for "Obama’s War" in Afghanistan, Holbrooke reeked of the good ol’ days – the Clinton Camelot and winning wars and all that – so it was easy to plug him in as a white knight of sorts.

Kantor, however, at least paused to suggest Holbrooke’s "pyrotechnical style" might not work with the humorless technocrats in Foggy Bottom or in the wilds of Central Asia:

"Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton chose Mr. Holbrooke because of his ability to twist arms as well as hold hands, work closely with the military, and improvise inventive solutions to what others write off as insoluble problems. But no one yet knows how his often pyrotechnical style – he whispers, but also pesters, bluffs, threatens, stages fits, and publicizes – will work in an administration that prizes low-key competence or in a region that is dangerously unstable."

The writer had the sense to temper her enthusiasm, and indeed she was right: one year later we find that Holbrooke has sadly failed to live up to the hype of his diplomatic wizardry. Instead, the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy remains mired in constant uncertainty and seems incoherent to most Americans. The U.S. military appears in charge of everything, and Holbrooke, as a result, often looks ineffectual and marginalized. Not only that, he’s become too much like Vice President Joe Biden, making head-scratching public statements that end up rankling temperamental allies, who are always waiting for secret signals that the Americans are being disingenuous and slippery.

Maybe it isn’t really the State Department’s careful ethos or even regional "instability" that prevents Holbrooke from living up to his famous "bulldozer" moniker. It could be that this war is bigger than even the mighty Richard Holbrooke, who might turn out not to be that mighty after all.

Where’s Dick?

Beginning in the fall of 2009, Holbrooke’s bright star was starting to dim. It had been 10 months since he was appointed by Obama, and five months since insiders like Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (inadvertently?) described Holbrooke’s first trip to the region as a sort of cheesy listening tour, "an unusual exercise in strategic listening," and a "bravura diplomatic show" that "seemed to have the desired effect."

But soon, headlines began blaring, "Where Is Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan?," "Holbrooke Missing From Afghan Talks," and on the McClatchy "Nukes & Spooks" blog, "Where’s Dick?":

"We’re in the midst of the biggest political crisis in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. Pakistan has launched a major offensive into the South Waziristan tribal area, a move that was preceded by a string of murderous terrorist attacks against Pakistani security forces. U.S.-Pakistani relations almost went thermonuclear over a U.S. aid bill that Pakistani military saw as a hammer against it.

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

"[H]is public profile has gone from hero to zero in recent weeks.

"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."

The unnamed administration sources who helped McClatchy figure it out spun it as White House "orders" that all officials engaged with "Af-Pak" policy "keep a lid on it" until the election mess (fraud) involving soon-to-be-declared President Hamid Karzai was over. But that didn’t explain why Holbrooke had been nearly MIA on the Pakistan offensive or why, as chief envoy, he wasn’t directly involved in the talks that opened the doors to the Nov. 7 election runoff (which never happened).

Jon Ward, writing for the Washington Times, said he was told by a State Department spokeswoman that Holbrooke was "in Washington helping to preside over the president’s month-long Afghanistan strategy review … his job is in Washington right now."

Ward and McClatchy and others speculate that it was Holbrooke’s heated exchange with Karzai after the initial election, followed by a Karzai freeze-out, that led to his diminished role in Kabul. Whatever the impetus, it’s clear even today that Holbrooke doesn’t seem to enjoy the alpha-dog treatment he used to command just by sweeping into a room.

"It’s a fair point to make that if we are going to negotiate eventually, we need to be able to deal with Karzai," points out Inter Press News Service correspondent Gareth Porter. That Holbrooke presently appears on the outs with the Afghan president doesn’t say much "of Holbrooke’s vaunted diplomatic capabilities."

Only insiders know what the true dynamics of the situation are. We can only guess about the kind of icy response Holbrooke got from within Foggy Bottom itself when he started gobbling up staff and walling off like a private fiefdom back in 2009. One former Pentagon official suggested to me that Holbrooke had attempted early on to bypass the department’s regional bureau system, and what we’re seeing now is "the system regaining control."

Others say you cannot dismiss the role of the military. Remember, last fall when all of the election shenanigans were coming to a head, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his own inner circle of senior officers and advisers were forcing the president’s hand in favor of their branded counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that, despite all of the talk to the contrary, would involve a military-led, comprehensive Long War roadmap that kept the State Department and all other U.S. government agencies in supporting roles.

Billions in resources for public diplomacy, plus control over reconstruction and other things not traditionally under the Pentagon’s purview, have been funneling into military coffers over the last several years, leaving little question as to who is in charge. Even the White House emerged looking whiplashed from last fall’s war policy fights. This is where things might have spelled doom for Holbrooke’s heroic self-image.

"The Army four-stars, led by Gen. David Petraeus, seized strategic control of political events from President Obama in 2009 when he capitulated to the four stars’ demands for a slow, ponderous withdrawal from Iraq and a buildup in Afghanistan," said retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, author of Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting and a familiar critic of the current war policy.

"Holbrooke and his boss [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] are now left to struggle in a large, black hole for American resources with little hope of achieving anything of value."

Others pinpoint Holbrooke’s "jump the shark" moment to Aug. 12, 2009, when he told a "live-tweeting audience" sponsored by the Center for American Progress that we’ll know what victory in Afghanistan looks like "when we see it." One can just imagine the response. "For those of you who worry that the Obama administration doesn’t have a clear strategy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or even a clear sense of what our overall objectives are: relax. You needn’t fret, because Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke knows how to define success," Stephen M. Walt wrote on his Foreign Policy blog that day.

Others see Holbrooke as constantly reacting to events like a firefighter – quite unlike the legacy he was reaching for in his own 2003 autobiography, To End a War. There, he describes with great aplomb – and without a trace of irony – his omnipotent role in bringing the Serbs to heel in 1994 (by steering then-President Clinton into a massive NATO bombing campaign), and then to the negotiating table, leading to the Dayton peace talks and consequent accords, which transformed Bosnia into a three-headed (some would say) monster representing the Muslims, the Croats, and the Serbs.

As’s own Nebojsa Malic described back in 2003, Holbrooke is the "founding stepfather" of modern Bosnia, and he took great pains to let everyone know it in his book. "There is no hint of modesty – false or otherwise – in Holbrooke, and for that one must be grateful. For in chronicling his efforts to badger, bully and beat the Bosnian’s into ending their war – on American terms, of course – he offers surprisingly clear insights into the U.S. Balkans policy at the time, and his own role therein."

While Holbrooke may have been the "avatar of the entire American government in the eyes of the warring factions," with enviable "carte blanche" from his superiors throughout the Balkan crises, he now comes off as less confident, smaller, and seemingly prone to missteps and confusing, overly calibrated statements, such as when he suggested that Indians were not the target of extremists in the Feb. 26 bomb attack on a popular Indian guesthouse in Kabul. He may have been trying to pander to the Pakistanis then, but he managed to get frozen out of India –for a second time.

In another potential foot-in-mouth scene in March, Holbrooke told an audience at Harvard that "almost every Pashtun family in the south has family or friends who are involved in the Taliban – it’s a fabric of society." His words went viral immediately and were seen as a slight to Karzai, who is Pashtun, and to the Pashtun people at-large.

"Karzai just really doesn’t like him. I hear the Pakistanis don’t like him, either," an unnamed senior former diplomat told Reuters in a report titled "Is Holbrooke’s ‘Bulldozer’ Style Working?" "They have acute sensitivities about being bullied by Americans."

There are the times when he appears in charge, but then he is overtaken by some external event that seems designed to pull him off his game. In an excellent analysis published by the Asia Times on March 6, M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote that the "nosedive" of U.S. "Af-Pak diplomacy" began after Holbrooke’s "spectacular success" at the London conference on Afghanistan on Jan. 28, which brought together NATO leaders to solidify support for the surge, but more importantly, for a "reintegration" plan for so-called moderate Taliban.

"No sooner had the crowd dispersed from London, than Af-Pak diplomacy began unraveling," Bhadrakumar wrote. He pointed to a series of unfortunate developments for the Americans: first the Pakistani government captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had been "shaping up as a key interlocutor" for the U.S. in this reintegration plan. The Pakistanis had been reportedly left out of the loop, and they seemed to be registering a complaint by capturing Baradar themselves.

Second, Karzai announced in February that his government, which had been blamed for some of the worst corruption in the world, was taking over the independent election complaints commission. Since there are parliamentary elections coming up in August that could change the face of the parliament, the primary representative body in Afghanistan, the implications of this move are pretty dramatic. "Washington," wrote Bhadrakumar, "has been left with no option for the present but to take Karzai’s blow and pretend nothing happened."

Don’t Believe the Hype

Some say Holbrooke cannot be blamed entirely for the glacial pace of progress. "The problems in Afghanistan are huge, and the United States needs Afghan political will and strong leadership to reform, which are lacking," says Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress.

"The challenge of managing the [Afghan and Pakistani] problems dwarfs Holbrooke and the American military," adds Macgregor.

The problem from the beginning has been that Holbrooke and everyone around him in the Democratic establishment has believed the hype to the contrary. The Afghan war was already in swing when he wrote his book and said things like "there will be other Bosnias in our lives – areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required," suggesting that "muscular" American authority "after Dayton" could and should be wielded on the international stage, as long as it’s done by the right leaders and for the right causes.

His steely embrace of the liberal view of humanitarian interventionism (which guided his support for Bush’s Iraq invasion), or "bombs for peace," didn’t hold up even through a decade. Today, Bosnia is a mess, but no one seems to notice. Take a look: it’s Iraq in 15 years – but by then no one will care about Iraq, either.

Holbrooke’s experience in Bosnia gave him a false sense of what such interventions could accomplish, and a false sense of himself, just like what happened in Iraq in 2007-2008 during the Surge, which gave Petraeus & Company a false sense of what COIN could accomplish. That Holbrooke is failing to live up to the image of "one of the most talented diplomats of his generation" shouldn’t matter much, but it should serve as yet another warning about the disappointments still ahead.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.