The Balkan Chameleon
I first laid eyes on Richard Holbrooke (he won't remember) on Monday evening, September 21, 1992. Some ridiculously wealthy Manhattan socialite had thrown a party for Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, then the new cause du jour, and some boutique human rights group — a bogus one, I realized in retrospect, now defunct, though its chieftain has since moved to greener pastures and is still active — had decided that I might be useful and had flown me up for the soirée. As it was, nobody was interested in me, I had a drink or two, ate some peanuts, and went back to DC. But it was amazing to watch Holbrooke in action, brown-nosing furiously, trying to pronounce Izzy's name, clambering up on the human rights soapbox. Later in December of that year Holbrooke and I crossed paths again, in Sarajevo, though neither of us was aware of the other's presence.
Subsequently, however, as Holbrooke became a central player in the Bosnia fiasco I became all too well aware of him, and have virtually nothing positive to say. Perhaps he helped in a small way to end the war at Dayton in 1995 (though the parties were fairly well exhausted at that point and a settlement, absent outside interference, would have been reached without Holbrooke) but one must remember that he helped in a very big way to keep the civil war going for three years through covert and overt support for the Bosnian Muslim side.
Nor was Holbrooke what one might call an "objective observer." In his memoir To End a War (1999, Modern Library), he trumpets the shame of the West doing nothing while "350,000" Muslims were killed, a preposterous figure taken from thin air. Throughout the conflict the mainstream media exaggerated Muslim deaths but never by so much. Once, for example, Reuters had bumped its boilerplate number from 250,000 to 300,000; I called one of their London editors to ask where this had come from — I knew their Sarajevo man, Kurt Schork (killed in Sierra Leone in 2000), and knew it hadn't come from him — and after a bit of to-and-fro I was told by Reuters London that the higher figure was a "typographical error" and they went back to what everyone else used. Which I hasten to repeat, was also wrong. Only years after the war did several European demographers come up with an authoritative estimate of slightly under 100,000 killed, total from all sides. An estimate slightly above the upper bounds of an estimate I had made in 1995 in the New York Times Magazine (90,000), but that was before the fighting was over and, besides, it's another story. So Holbrooke had exaggerated Muslim deaths by about a factor of five. Making himself appear all the more heroic. Par for the course.
Nobody should be fooled into thinking Holbrooke has strong diplomatic skills. He hasn't. What he has is a boundless talent for self-promotion and a drive that won't quit. If a President, any President, were serious about diplomacy, anywhere, Holbrooke would be last person to pick. That Mr. Obama has put Richard Holbrooke in charge of the Great Game (American Millennial version) should be taken as a very serious indicator that nobody has any idea what to do.
More worrying still is, as Holbrooke articulated it so crudely yesterday, the administration's belief that they are fighting people in Afghanistan who pose a direct threat to us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, there's nothing about Afghanistan that is of the slightest importance to U.S. national security except for the fact that Afghanistan borders Pakistan and that events in the former may well further destabilize the latter. Our only interest in the region is Pakistan's nuclear weapons and, to a slightly lesser extent, India's. We don't want them to have a nuclear war and we don't want them to proliferate.
An intelligent foreign policy approach to Afghanistan would recognize our priorities up front and work for de-nuclearization of the region — which would almost certainly require comprehensive and radical nuclear arms reductions by all the nuclear states, including Israel — and economic development in Pakistan, to start. Obscuring those priorities does nobody any good, with the possible exception of extreme self-promoters, like Richard Holbrooke, who care mainly or, when the chips are down, only about themselves.