Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holbrooke Eulogies Vary in Intensity

The Atlantic has a collection of eulogies, including a very perceptive one from David Ignatius:
But he offended too many of the smaller and more particular people he needed to work with, in the Obama administration and abroad. He clashed famously with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who not entirely without reason thought that Holbrooke wanted him out, as well as with various other personalities in Afghanistan. Pretty soon, it became difficult for the Af-Pak negotiator to spend much productive time in Af-Pak, which wasn't good. He made an effort to throttle back that magnificent personality -- trying not to give too many interviews, trying not to be a dominating presence. It was a hopeless task, like trying to bottle lightning. If he saw something that offended or appealed to him, Holbrooke could not keep his mouth shut.

That is what a senior State Dept. official has told me privately about the Af-Pak relationship under Holbrooke's tutelage. It looks like the old 'bridge too far' syndrome that probably pushed Holbrooke's fading health beyond its substantive limits. Holbrooke's temper, anger, tantrums, whatever, were famous and he could be downright nasty to those he deemed unworthy of his attention. There were towards the end, far more Holbrooke haters in the Af-Pak theater than admirers, as McChrystal's ill-fated interview with The Rolling Stone revealed.

Serial suck-up Jon Alter aside, other anecdotes collected by Clive Crook are interesting, including one by James Kitfield of The National Journal:
Whether he was perceived as brilliant and determined or intellectually prickly and brusque often depended on whose arm was about to be twisted when he entered the room. In his last diplomatic role as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, Holbrooke was becoming the one thing no one could have predicted based on his long career: marginalized.
That Holbrooke saw his influence ebb on major policy matters almost certainly says more about the job he was given by President Obama, and about the enormous challenges he and others inherited in Afghanistan and Pakistan, than it does about the skills of one of the pre-eminent diplomats of his generation. Holbrooke's inability to embody the role of civilian "czar" or point man on "Af-Pak" policy also raises questions about the future role of the SRAP organization itself.

For what it's worth, my State connection told me that Holbrooke couldn't even broker a meeting with Manohman Singh of India without serious arm-twisting back in DC by the Sec'y's Office and even The Oval Office. Finally, Crook's insightful sum-up:
Holbrooke's drive and "magnificent personality", as Ignatius calls it, were in many ways quintessentially American. Alter's piece is aptly called "An American in Full". The admiration that many liberals have for the man makes one wonder about their earlier praise for Obama's diplomatic temperament--unstrident, self-deprecating, willing to listen, and emphatically not a caricature American like his predecessor. How terribly important those virtues were said to be. Of course, Holbrooke worked for Democratic administrations; he was a bully for liberal causes. Still, I wonder how much his style of diplomacy would have been admired by liberals had he been a neocon. "Well, I question his aims, but you have to admire his assumption that he and America know best, his disdain for diplomatic courtesies, and the way he tramples down those who disagree."

I think Ignatius's "magnificent personality" might be a code word. I'll let the discerning reader decipher just what David I. was talking about.

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