Richard Holbrooke: A Statesman’s Statesman — if You Take Your Diplomacy Straight up Without Principles as a Chaser

Richard HolbrookeNow that he’s dead, Richard Holbrooke takes up the halo that is the natural prerogative of deceased American public figures. However, there have been few less qualified than he for canonization. His most memorable achievement, the Dayton Agreement was an unprincipled surrender to confessional apartheid, which pandered to war criminals to whom it gave a veto over the future of a viable Bosnian state. It has been suggested that one its prices was an implicit pledge for NATO forces to be less than rigorous in their search for Ratko Mladic and other wanted war criminals.

That remains to be proven, but it is indisputable that in the cause of a quick exit for President Bill Clinton from the Balkan imbroglio, Dayton granted the ethnic cleansers of the Republika Srpska territory they had soaked in other people’s blood. It enshrined an unworkable, confessionally based, almost Apartheid-motivated Rube Goldberg state whose institutions made the Holy Roman Empire seem like a lean mean governmental machine.

Technically Holbrooke was indeed a superbly effective diplomat. There is a fuzzy sort of do-gooding diplomacy, especially prevalent around the UN, that thinks that as long as people are talking, all is well. Netanyahu and Milosevic are just outstanding examples of conjuror-style diplomacy in which, as long as you keep talking, no one notices what mayhem your hands commit.

Richard Holbrooke knew that. He was neither fuzzy, nor much in the way of a do-gooder. Nor was he one of those whose machinations would be exposed in WikiLeaks, since his deals were based on a firm handshake — accompanied by a firmer grip around his opponent’s scrotum. He leaked to the press in a way that makes Julian Assange look like an bumbling amateur — but was of course selective and self-glorifying in his selection of information.

He was a most undiplomatic diplomat, as shown with his relations with Afghan President Ahmed Karzai. It is not usually effective to treat heads of state whom your government is trying to boost as independent national leaders as if they were underlings to be bullied. We can be sure that whatever failings he ascribed to Karzai’s administration, it was no sense of abstract moral outrage that motivated him, rather the effect of such behavior on American war aims.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who tempered idealism with reality, famously said that foreign policy should have a “moral dimension.” He resigned over the Iraq War. Holbrooke showed an amoral enthusiasm for doing his government’s bidding.

The classic definition of a diplomat is someone who goes abroad to lie for his country and Holbrooke spent a vigorous career living down to the quip. He cut his teeth on the Vietnam War, and as State Department desk officer did Washington’s bidding in Indonesia during the the invasion and mass murders in East Timor. On the realpolitik front he could make Henry Kissinger seem like a hand-wringing Liberal.

To be fair, he was genuinely appalled by the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, but he unsentimentally never lost sight of the main aim — which was to extricate his President, Bill Clinton, from a predicament in which he had promised Americans not to involve US troops but needed force to get a settlement.

In those days before the Internet took off, it is unlikely that even WikiLeaks would ever extract and publicize whatever deal Holbrooke cooked up with Milosevic, nor even unravel the choreography of Operation Storm in which with the Serbian President’s tacit complicity Bosnian and Croatian forces rolled over the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs.

When they were too successful — and went past the agreed 51/49% division of spoils, reportedly NATO stopped enforcing the no-fly zone that had kept Serbia’s superior air force and helicopters out of play.

Milosevic was keen for Holbrooke to testify in his defense that many of these events were choreographed, but his lawyers would not have been able to find any paper trail to back up events. Certainly, some in the Balkans, like former Bosnian FM Muhamed Sacirbey, suspects that Holbrooke had winked at the fall of the enclaves, such as Srebrenica, although even Sacirbey does not think the subsequent massacre was part of the deal.

Later, when Sacirbey was held awaiting extradition under charges inspired and perpetuated by the US State Department and embassy in Sarajevo, I asked Holbrooke if he could help. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since there was more than a suspicion that his influence was behind the spurious charges, but he was adamant, “You‘ve heard what he said about me?” he said defensively. “Yes,” I said, “but what does that have to do with his innocence and imprisonment?” In fact, Sacirbey was also one of the most cogent critics of the Dayton deal that has now come back to haunt the Balkans.

Some people occasionally wondered what would happen if Hobrooke’s rebarbative talents were unleashed on the great prevaricators in the Middle East. In fact, Netanyahu would have been safe — in a speech in Jerusalem Holbrooke made it plain that he considered UNSC resolution 242 as firstly, non-binding, despite most legal opinion that consequent resolution 338 made it so, and that it essentially allowed Israel to keep hold of territory.

Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime. He was more vigorous and unalloyed in his espousal of perceived American interests than most, and he certainly chafed at Bill Clinton’s refusal to let him wave a big stick — and at European reluctance to be deployed as Sepoys to do the work the White House did not dare do itself for fear of GOP attacks.

His deathbed words on Afghanistan will be subject to exegesis for some time to come, but an invocation to get out of Afghanistan is certainly in line with his realistic assessment of American interests. Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime.