Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Holbrooke's revenge

Foreign Policy has a chapter from the forthcoming book by Vali Nasr, formerly a member of Richard Holbrooke's team as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Nasr complains that the "White House jealously guarded all foreign policymaking" and funneled major decisions "through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics."  He details how President Obama ignored Holbrooke's repeated proposals for peace negotiations with the Taliban and calls his own experience "deeply disillusioning."

Maybe the book has more persuasive details, but this chapter strikes me as sour grapes from an official whose boss was mistreated and whose supposedly brilliant ideas were ignored. Happens allt he time in Washington. That doesn't invalidate Nasr's complaint, but does provide a perspective.

I also think that Nasr doesn't really understand how the White House works.

- There have always been turf wars -- Holbrooke himself fought several quite successfully. Working at State at the end of the Clinton administration, I felt many times that the White House was our biggest enemy. But Holbrooke was long recognized as someone who should be excluded from meetings if he was expected to be disruptive. [Tony Lake did it in the Clinton years].
- The Obama people gave Holbrooke  a bureaucratically weak position and a nearly impossible task [including "solving" Pakistan while being excluded from anything to do with India]. Holbrooke was one of many "czars" [more under Obama than the Romanov family produced over 300 years] who had no legal authority, no Senate confirmation, and no budget.
- Nasr's complaint that that White House dominated policy and was run by political operatives who were neophytes on foreign policy is half right and half wrong. Of course the WH runs policy, especially the most important issues like ongoing wars. There is ample evidence is that Tom Donilon has run a very inclusive and deliberative process. Holbrooke just lost his share of battles, probably because his plans for negotiations with the Taliban weren't that persuasive. Political input to NSC matters has always been allowed, and welcomed by Presidents. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes were designated members of the NSC in the Bush years; the WH chief of staff has been for several administrations. They don't speak up in meetings but are on the circulation list for memos and thus know what is going on. They can weigh in in other ways.

I know a lot of people who worked with Holbrooke over the years. He was brilliant and forceful, which is wonderful when you agree with him and disruptive when you don't.

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