Holbrooke: Insensitive Choice for a Sensitive Region

choice for special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguably the most
critical area of U.S. foreign policy, is a man with perhaps the most
sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign
policy and national security appointments.

Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the
1960s, in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of
South Vietnam. This ambitious joint civilian-military effort not only
included horrific human rights abuses but also proved to be a notorious
failure in curbing the insurgency against the U.S.-backed regime in
Saigon. This was an inauspicious start in the career of someone Obama
hopes to help curb the insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in

In Asia

In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of State
for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major
role in formulating the Carter administration's support for Indonesia's
occupation of East Timor and the bloody counterinsurgency campaign
responsible for up to a quarter-million civilian deaths. Having
successfully pushed for a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid to the
Suharto dictatorship, he then engaged in a cover-up of the Indonesian
atrocities. He testified before Congress in 1979 that the mass
starvation wasn't the fault of the scorched-earth campaign by
Indonesian forces in the island nation's richest agricultural areas,
but simply a legacy of Portuguese colonial neglect. Later, in reference
to his friend Paul Wolfowitz, then the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia,
Holbrooke described
how "Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep
[East Timor] out of the presidential campaign, where it would do no
good to American or Indonesian interests."

In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State
Department's East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release
South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a
pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju. Holbrooke was among the
Carter administration officials who reportedly gave the OK to General
Chun Doo-hwan, who had recently seized control of the South Korean
government in a military coup, to wipe out the pro-democracy rebels.
Hundreds were killed.

He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military
and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

At the UN

Holbrooke, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the late
1990s, criticized the UN for taking leadership in conflict resolution
efforts involving U.S. allies, particularly in the area of human
rights. For example, in October 2000 he insisted
that a UN Security Council resolution criticizing the excessive use of
force by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian demonstrators
revealed an unacceptable bias that put the UN "out of the running" in
terms of any contributions to the peace process.

As special representative to Cyprus in 1997, Holbrooke
unsuccessfully pushed the European Union to admit Turkey, despite its
imprisonment of journalists, its ongoing use of the death penalty, its
widespread killing of civilians in the course of its bloody
counter-insurgency war in its Kurdish region, and other human rights

In the Former Yugoslavia

Holbrooke is perhaps best known for his leadership in putting
together the 1995 Dayton Accords, which formally ended the conflict in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though widely praised in some circles for his
efforts, Holbrooke remains quite controversial for his role. For
instance, the agreement allows Bosnian Serbs to hold on to virtually
all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course
of that bloody conflict. Indeed, rather than accept the secular concept
of national citizenship that has held sway in Europe for generations,
Holbrooke helped impose sectarian divisions that have made the country
- unlike most of its gradually liberalizing Balkan neighbors -
unstable, fractious, and dominated by illiberal ultra-nationalists.

As with previous U.S. officials regarding their relations with
Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Panama's Manuel Noriega, Holbrooke epitomizes
the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the
extremes of appeasement and war. For example, during the 1996
pro-democracy uprising in Serbia Holbrooke successfully argued that the
Clinton administration should back Milosevic, in recognition of his
role in the successful peace deal over Bosnia, and not risk the
instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats.
Milosevic initially crushed the movement. In response to increased
Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however,
Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing
campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the
reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The pro-democracy
movement finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime,
following Milosevic's attempt to steal the parliamentary elections in
October 2000, but the young leaders of that movement remain bitterly
angry at Holbrooke to this day.

Scott Ritter, the former chief UN Special Commission
(UNSCOM) inspector who correctly assessed the absence of weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq and predicted a disastrous outcome for the
U.S. invasion, observes
that "not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it
comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan),
Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the
finesse of diplomacy." Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the
assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which
would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan
than in Europe, Ritter adds: "This does not bode well for the Obama

Ironically, back in 2002-2003, when the United States had
temporarily succeeded in marginalizing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces,
Holbrooke was a strong supporter of redirecting American military and
intelligence assets away from the region in order to invade and occupy
Iraq. Obama and others presciently criticized this reallocation of
resources at that time as likely to lead to the deterioration of the
security situation in the country and the resurgence of these extremist

It's unclear, then, why Obama would choose someone like Holbrooke
for such a sensitive post. Indeed, it's unclear as to why - having been
elected on part for his anti-war credentials - Obama's foreign policy
and national security appointments have consisted primarily of such
unreconstructed hawks. Advocates of a more enlightened and rational
foreign policy still have a long row to hoe.