Richard Holbrooke’s legacy

    The death of legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke will barely register on the national consciousness. After all, he spent his long and peripatetic career working for peace in distant lands that insular Americans would be hard pressed to find on a map. And his very last assignment, working as President Obama’s top envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, compelled him to grapple with intricately thorny issues (corruption, fragile economies, insurgent violence) that most Americans prefer not to even think about.Indeed, given Holbrooke’s frenetic work ethic, and his unquenchable thirst for life at the vortex of power, it’s a shame that he’ll never know whether his peacemaking efforts succeeded or failed in “Af-Pak” (a term that he popularized). It surely would not have surprised him, however, if victory remained elusive. As he publicly confessed during the summer of 2009: “I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan…We’ll know it when we see it.”Yet, over the span of nearly half a century, working abroad for every Democratic president since JFK, Holbrooke’s impact was indisputable. Thousands of human beings are alive today in the Balkans because of the peace treaty that Holbrooke forged as a Clinton envoy in 1995 (it was signed 15 years ago today) – a pact, known as the Dayton accords, that ended years of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, a pact that was inked only after Holbrooke relentlessly cajoled and bullied the vicious Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.One of the last survivors of the hawkish Democratic foreign policy establishment (his patrons included Clark Clifford, Averill Harriman, and Dean Rusk), Holbrooke had a knack for popping up at historic junctures – sort of like Zelig, the Woody Allen character who magically surfaced alongside famous figures in old newsreels. His nickname was the Bulldozer. He was on the ground in Vietnam in 1963, trying to win hearts and minds, and later served as an embassy aide in Saigon; back in Washington, he helped author a volume of the Pentagon Papers; he joined the U.S. delegation that opened peace talks with the North Vietnamese; as a Peace Corps director, he visited Afghanistan way back in 1971; he collaborated with Clifford on the latter’s memoirs; he had a major role; helping America establish full diplomatic relations with China in 1979; 14 years later, he enlarged the NATO alliance while serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany; as our U.N. ambassador, he dealt with health crises and peace missions in Africa. In those episodes and many others, he knocked heads, ticked people off, and burnished a reputation for being (in the words of one admirer, ex-Kissinger aide Gahl Burt) “a bully with a heart.”As a self-described “product of the Kennedy era,” Holbrooke believed in American power and American goodness, and in their prudent uses abroad. For better or worse (and we won’t know the verdict for awhile, and even then, the verdict will be endlessly debated), Holbrooke played a key role in persuading the Obama administration to deepen its war commitment in Afghanistan. He insisted that we needed to be there, and needed to bring Pakistan more fully into the equation, because al Qaeda was there. But that was the easy part of the argument. The hard part was about how an expanded war should be fought.Today, we’re basically following Holbrooke’s advice – fighting not just with troops, but with civilians who are tasked with delivering humanitarian and economic assistance, in the hopes of raising the everyday quality of life. As Holbrooke remarked in the summer of ’09, “our civilian assistance is going to continue for a long time.” What’s ironic, however, is that even though Holbrooke resisted drawing parallels between the U.S. experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan (in retrospect, he didn’t think that Vietnam was a threat to our national security), he successfully argued that Obama should employ, in Afghanistan, the counter-insurgency/hearts-and-minds strategy that America employed in Vietnam. The aim is the same: Clean up the corrupt local regime, win the allegiance of the people by bettering their lives, while building up the local military so that it can go fight the bad guys.Will it all work? On the same day that Holbrooke died, The New York Times reported that at least 100 civilian relief workers have died violently this year in Afghanistan. On average, civilians are being attacked 55 times a month – a sevenfold hike since 2009 – and the story asked: “Has American counter-insurgency strategy militarized the delivery of aid?”Even Holbrooke doubted there will ever be a peace ceremony. Here’s a passage from an ’09 New Yorker profile:”He acknowledged that no Dayton would come at the end of the diplomatic phase. In both Vietnam and the Balkans, he said, ‘there was always a fixed adversary, with whom you could talk even while fighting.’ This time, the enemy had no fixed capital, no government. It was very hard to imagine a cast of characters, in suits and uniforms and turbans, seated around a table, preparing to end the Af-Pak war, with Holbrooke standing over them, smiling the smile that told you he had won.”Holbrooke literally worked himself to death on behalf of the legacy he leaves behind. He believed that carrot-and-stick American muscle was the way to go in Afghanistan; he saw no alternative. He told the New Yorker, “I still believe in the possibility of the United States, with all its will and all its strength.” We’ll know, only in time, whether his final assignment paid off.

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