‘Larger-than-life’ Holbrooke back on stage

‘Larger-than-life’ Holbrooke back on stage
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First Published: Mon, Feb 09 2009. 12 07 AM IST

Pyrotechnical style: Holbrooke stands on a tank in Herat, Afghanistan, behind his wife, Kati Marton, in a 2006 family photo. His negotiating skills have won him an unusual title—representative rather
Pyrotechnical style: Holbrooke stands on a tank in Herat, Afghanistan, behind his wife, Kati Marton, in a 2006 family photo. His negotiating skills have won him an unusual title—representative rather
Updated: Mon, Feb 09 2009. 12 07 AM IST
Stashed in a drawer in his Manhattan apartment between snapshots of family vacations, a photograph shows Richard C. Holbrooke on a private visit to Afghanistan in 2006. He is mugging atop an abandoned Russian tank, flashing a sardonic V-for-victory sign and his best Nixon-style grin. The pose is a little like Holbrooke himself: looming, theatrical, passionate, indignant.
Pyrotechnical style: Holbrooke stands on a tank in Herat, Afghanistan, behind his wife, Kati Marton, in a 2006 family photo. His negotiating skills have won him an unusual title—representative rather than envoy. NYT
Three years later, he has inherited responsibility for the terrain he surveyed from that tank. As President Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke will help reformulate and carry out American policy in what many call the most problematic region on earth.
Between them, the two countries contain unstable governments, insurgencies; corruption and a narcotics trade; nuclear material; refugees; resentment of American power; a resurgent Taliban; and in the shadows of the tribal region that joins the two countries, Al-Qaida and presumably Osama bin Laden.
“You have a problem that is larger than life,” said Christopher R. Hill, a longtime colleague expected to be named as the new ambassador to Iraq. “To deal with it you need someone who’s larger than life.”
Few other diplomats can boast of the accomplishments of Holbrooke, 67, who negotiated the Dayton peace accords to end the war in Bosnia. But as he lands in Pakistan on Monday, back on duty after eight years of a Republican administration, he is still an outsider in the Obama circle, having only recently developed a relationship with the new president. His long-time foreign-policy pupil, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has the secretary of state job he has always wanted. And he has taken on a task so difficult that merely averting disaster may be the only triumph.
“We are still in the process of digging our way into the debris,” Holbrooke said in an interview. “We’ve inherited an extraordinarily dysfunctional situation in which the very objectives have to be reviewed.” Obama and Clinton chose 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.
“Richard C. Holbrooke is the diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state and a friend.
Already, Holbrooke’s return to Washington has caused tremors. His arrival at the state department has rattled colleagues who remember him as someone who cultivates the powerful and tramples those with less to offer. Others worry about his assiduous courtship of the media. Judging from interviews with several officials, there seems to be confusion about whether the American embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be controlled by Holbrooke or the regular state department overseers.
And even friends acknowledge that Holbrooke is intently focused on his own legend. (Many people have personal trainers; Holbrooke has a personal archivist.)
For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak—Washington shorthand for his assignment—as his last and toughest mission.
But along with the rest of Obama’s foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former president Bush’s grand, transformative goals and towards something more achievable.
On his coming 10-day trip, Holbrooke said he will try to vacuum up as much information as possible, visiting high-level officials and local ones, women who serve in the Afghan National Assembly, military bases, non-governmental organizations, anti-narcotics programmes, refugee camps and the perilous tribal region.
There is a reason for this wide-ranging tour: Because official Afghan and Pakistani leaders are seen as weak, Holbrooke may have to seek alternative partners, a task to which he is naturally suited, according to Wesley K. Clark, the retired army general.
“Richard Holbrooke sees power the way an artist sees colour,” Clark said.
Thanks to Holbrooke’s negotiating skills, he won himself an unusual title: representative rather than envoy, meaning that his responsibilities extend beyond the state department and that he will report to the president, but through Clinton. It is a bit of Washingtonese whose precise meaning will become clear only with time.
His first task is to help lead a total review of American policy in the region, an assignment on which Obama has imposed a 60-day deadline. Another is to learn as much about Pakistan as Holbrooke has about Afghanistan; he is hiring staff members to fill some of the gaps in his knowledge, according to colleagues.
Asked about Holbrooke’s sometimes overbearing qualities, Clinton replied with mock innocence. “Gee, I’d never heard that he could be any of those things before,” she said. Then she turned serious. “Occasionally he has to be, you know, brought down to earth and reined in.”
©2009/The New York Times
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First Published: Mon, Feb 09 2009. 12 07 AM IST