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November 26, 2008

Think Higher for Holbrooke
Posted by Patrick Barry

Matt Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman both ask: why not Richard Holbrooke for Ambassador to Iraq?  That's a legitimate question, especially given Holbrooke's ability to wrangle with the very toughest customers, but as a strictly hypothetical exercise, I wonder whether his formidable persona might fit better in a more elevated role - something like special envoy to the Middle East. 

For the past few years, there has been a growing consensus that in order for the U.S. to have any shot at leaving Iraq and Afghanistan in decent shape, a regional approach will have to be adopted.  The Baker-Hamilton Commission suggested a diplomatic offensive as a way of inducing stability in Iraq, and the Jones-Pickering report made the same recommendation about Afghanistan.  In separate reports on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the Center for American progress has been similarly outspoken about adopting this regional approach. Last year I went with Ilan to an event on Iraq at CATO, where Jim Dobbins made a convincing argument for why, when dealing with weak states like Iraq and Afghanistan, a coordinated regional strategy is critical.  Ilan summarized the talk, and Dobbins' lessons (which mostly have to do with Iraq, but they work for Afghanistan too):

Dobbins argued that in every case of trying to fix a failed state the neighbors play a critical role.  They have serious national interests because they are the ones who have to deal with the refugees, violence, crime, economic shocks and all the other wonderful things that happen as a result of a total meltdown on your border.  They simply are not going to sit on the sidelines.

All of the neighbors have an interest in maintaining stability.  To do this they search for proxies who will carry out their agenda. Paradoxically, this proxy strategy only ends up exacerbating the situation by strengthening various warring parties and creating greater potential for broader regional conflict. The only way around this, is to create a regional dialogue that forces all the neighbors to come together and coordinate their strategies.  Instead of a zero sum game they should be working towards the same greater goal of keeping Iraq from totally falling apart.

So not only is there resounding support for a regional diplomatic strategy for both Iraq and Afghanistan, but as this Karen DeYoung piece from last week indicates, the incoming Obama team feels the same way. 

Now, it's true that there are other people just as qualified for this role, if not more so, because of their regional expertise (Dobbins, Ross, etc.), but if what you want is somone who can get a bunch of stubborn actors in line (Hindus, Pashtuns, Iranians, Tajiks, Syrians, etc. - on top of Sunni, Shia and Kurds) then Holbrooke seems like a pretty strong candidate for the job.

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Holbrooke sealed his fate, in my book, when he joined James Woolsey, Dennis Ross, Karen Hughes, Fouad Ajami, Walter Russell Mead and others in a rogues gallery of Middle East hawks in the leadership team of United Against Nuclear Iran. UANI is a gang of provocateurs and hardliners that is seeking to stoke passions, drum up fears, bang the war drums and head off any realistic diplomatic opening toward detente with Iran. That makes him an absolutely inappropriate figure to play the role you suggest. A suitable Middle East envoy for the Obama administration needs to have a more diplomatic, less partisan and hard line record on regional issues, and should not be lining himself with agitating groups of this sort.

Look, we've seen this routine before with Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, PNAC and other such groups preaching forceful regional transformation. Do you think we're fucking idiots?! Holbrooke can go to hell.

The right position for Richard Holbrooke would have been Secretary of State. Barack Obama's apparent choice for that position casts doubt on whether Holbrooke would be able to play effectively the regional envoy role outlined here.

This would be, on a larger scale, a reprise of the role he played during the Balkan wars, in which he served under a Secretary of State content to supervise policy discreetly and from a distance. Whatever Warren Christopher's faults at State, his relationship with Holbrooke at that time enabled the latter to be seen in the region as the authoritative voice of American policy, an indispensable advantage for a diplomat and one that contributed greatly to the eventual Dayton settlement.

Serving under a far more high-maintenance superior like Hillary Clinton, who with her entourage will likely seek to make her own mark on foreign policy rather than leave it to a subordinate, Holbrooke would find more of his time taken up with managing his own chain of command within the State Department -- in a far more complex environment than was the case in the Balkans, both because the Middle Eastern region is much larger and because the Pentagon has a much bigger presence in the making of policy. The role of the White House with respect to policy in this area is an additional, potential complication, since no one knows what it will be yet.

I agree with Dobbins' arguments; it may be that he himself is the best person to begin putting them into practice, given his background in this region. I am far from doubting Holbrooke's ability, but have concern that his effectiveness could be undermined by the desire of his department's chief to squeeze herself and possibly several more cooks into his kitchen.

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