Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Latest Cabinet Buzz: Richard Holbrooke to Lead South Asia Diplomacy

Today's Washington Post reports that Obama will likely select Richard Holbrook to lead diplomatic efforts in South Asia. Holbrooke is an advisor to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy. He also served as Ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration. Before Clinton accepted her position as Secretary of State, media accounts indicated that Clinton negotiated having top roles for her advisors in the State Department. Holbrooke's rumored appointment could reflect this agreement.

Although Holbrooke has a wealth of foreign policy experiences, progressives have expressed nothing but contempt for him. In fact, he was a major part of a "guilt by association" strategy they used to construct Hillary Clinton as a bloodthirsty hawk: Because Holbrooke, who advises Clinton, is militaristic, then Clinton is militaristic as well. By contrast, progressives argued that Obama surrounded himself with a collection of peaceful doves, which, along with his stated opposition to the war in Iraq, made him a leftist in terms of foreign affairs. Some would argue that this argument is valid from a "common sense" perspective, but as a wise professor recently told me: "Common sense is for people who do not want to read." Now that Obama has surrounded himself with the same group of supposed hawks, progressives are in a state of near panic.

I have pulled together a collection of progressive critiques of Holbrooke and have pasted them below. Some of these arguments were made during the Democratic primaries, but others only recently emerged.

The Progressive
Holbrooke . . . carries a lot of baggage—some of it pretty unsightly. He was a State Department official in Vietnam during the 1960s, and under President Carter served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. During those years, he helped provide key assistance to U.S.-backed dictators in South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. His constant refrain was the preservation of U.S. national security interests in the region. After Park Chung Hee, the South Korean dictator, was shot to death in 1979 after eighteen years of increasingly brutal rule, for example, Holbrooke exploded in anger when Christian dissidents protested the continuation of martial law. Their actions, he complained in declassified documents I obtained in 1996, were making it difficult for the United States to avoid “another Iran” in that country.

And like Brzezinski, Holbrooke lent enormous assistance to Suharto’s military to put down the Timorese resistance. Among the weapons systems sold to Suharto with U.S. support were A-10 Broncos that were used to strafe Timorese villages. “If you look at the statistics, from 1976 to 1978 we massively increased our assistance that made the occupation and quelling of the [East Timor] rebellion possible,” Edmund McWilliams, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in Indonesia during the Clinton Administration, told me. “To my mind, that was when the great bloodletting took place, and it was all done during the watch of Richard Holbrooke and Jimmy Carter, the human rights President.”

Holbrooke also was hawkish on Iraq and has had harsh words for Iran, comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

Foreign Policy in Focus
During the lead-up to the war, Obama’s advisors were suspicious of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq somehow threatened U.S. national security to the extent that it required a U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. . . .

By contrast, Clinton’s top advisor and her likely pick for secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, insisted that Iraq remained “a clear and present danger at all times" . . . .

Holbrooke, rejecting the broad international legal consensus against offensive wars, insisted that it was perfectly legitimate for the United States to invade Iraq and that the European governments and anti-war demonstrators who objected “undoubtedly encouraged” Saddam Hussein.

Air America
[Richard] Holbrooke will have major sway over U.S. policy, whether or not he gets an official job. . . . Among the many violent policies he helped implement and enforce was the U.S.-backed Indonesian genocide in East Timor. Holbrooke was an Assistant Secretary of State in the late 1970s at the height of the slaughter and was the point man on East Timor for the Carter Administration.

According to Brad Simpson, director of the Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, "It was Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski [another top Obama advisor], both now leading lights in the Democratic Party, who played point in trying to frustrate the efforts of congressional human-rights activists to try and condition or stop U.S. military assistance to Indonesia, and in fact accelerated the flow of weapons to Indonesia at the height of the genocide". . . .

[]Holbrooke also supported the Iraq war. In early 2003, shortly after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the UN, where he presented the administration's fraud-laden case for war to the UN (a speech Powell has since called a "blot" on his reputation), Holbrooke said: "It was a masterful job of diplomacy by Colin Powell and his colleagues, and it does not require a second vote to go to war. . . .Saddam is the most dangerous government leader in the world today, he poses a threat to the region, he could pose a larger threat if he got weapons of mass destruction deployed, and we have a legitimate right to take action."

San Francisco Chronicle
Clinton's apologists include Gloria Steinem and too many other feminists, who should know better than to betray the women's movement's commitment to peace in favor of simplistic gender politics. It is disturbing, not because they conclude that Clinton is the best candidate, but because they refuse to challenge their candidate to be better. Does it not matter that Hillary's key foreign policy advisers are drawn heavily from the ranks of the neoliberals, who cheered as loudly for Bush's war as did the neoconservatives? Are they not concerned that Richard Holbrooke, who exploited his experience and access to secret information during the Clinton presidency to back the Iraq invasion, is a likely contender for secretary of state should she win?

The Atlantic
Roger Cohen lobbies hard for the inclusion of Richard Holbrooke in a very powerful role in an Obama administration. I would say the fact that this seems relatively unlikely to happen was emblematic of the reasons to prefer Obama over Hillary Clinton. I think nobody doubts that Holbrooke is an very able practitioner of a certain brand of diplomacy, but his judgment and substantive ideas about broad policy questions leaves much to be desired.

He's the leading light of the clan of self-proclaimed "national security Democrats", that faction of the party sufficiently "serious" about foreign affairs to have seen the deep wisdom of a costly and destructive invasion of Iraq. . . .

The Nation
In diplomacy, even a veneer of decency and statesmanship can matter. Neither Richard Holbrooke, the author of Dayton, who lost no opportunity to refer to the UN as "deeply flawed" or Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who disposed of Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the most high-handed and thoughtless manner, can lay claim to glory as statesmen. Albright, responding to critics at the UN, reminded everyone that we are the "indispensable nation," so get over it.


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