Thursday, November 13, 2008

Post-election thoughts, part 2: A Case For Holbrooke

With the spotlight now on potential cabinet appointments, I'm surprised Richard Holbrooke's name isn't all over the news as the assumed Secretary of State. There's been a lot of talk about John Kerry. Kerry is a nice guy, but do we really want a nice guy leading tough negotiations in Tehran and Moscow? Certainly the most critical, world changing talks since the end of the cold war may occur in the coming months. If there was one position to fill with a hawkish bad-ass like Holbrooke, this would be it. Holbrooke was born for this job, and I personally couldn't think of anyone I would rather have negotiating on my behalf.

Here's a very insightful NY Times Magazine profile from 1995: Taming the Bullies of Bosnia

An excerpt about his early relationship with Milosevic:

Slobodan Milosevic, whose virulent nationalism unleashed the wars of Yugoslavia's destruction, is a very seductive man. Warren Zimmerman, the last American Ambassador to Yugoslavia, maintains that he deceives everyone once. He is a deal maker, like Holbrooke, quick, sometimes funny and extremely hospitable. He does not have Marcos's yacht, but he does have a couple of hunting lodges where he likes to entertain visiting dignitaries. Frasure, who spent many hours with the Serbian President, was plied with so much food that he once cabled Washington with the message, "The lambs of Serbia will be delighted that I'm leaving!"

When Holbrooke and Milosevic first met in mid-August, a rapport was quickly established. Frasure, just a couple of days before his death, described the relationship to the chief European envoy, Carl Bildt: "The two egos danced all night."

Holbrooke, perhaps more than anyone in the Administration, knew exactly with whom he was dealing. He had been in Banja Luka in August 1992, where he witnessed "an insane asylum, with all these half-drunk Serb paramilitaries and middle-aged men going and raping and killing young Muslim women." Later he was given a wooden carving from a Muslim survivor of a Serbian concentration camp. The pose, head bowed in abject humiliation, captures the Serbian terror of the war's first months, carried out largely by paramilitary forces equipped and financed by Milosevic. Holbrooke wrote about it for this Magazine and put the sculpture in his Washington office.

Asked if he thought of the carving when dealing with Milosevic, Holbrooke becomes defensive; when he's defensive, he does not answer questions. "The sculpture's sitting there. I point it out to people," he says. When the question is pursued, he says: "No, it's not that linear. I don't sit there looking at one of those guys and thinking of this piece of wood. You wouldn't, either. But I understand the connection. I'm sure we all do."

Holbrooke does care. There can be little doubt about it. He saw what happened to Bosnia's Muslims. But it was also clear to him that Milosevic was the key to closing down the war because he was the person who wanted most badly for it to end, so that trade sanctions against Serbia would be lifted.

This realization became overwhelming on Aug. 29 in Belgrade. NATO had embarked on its first serious bombing of the Serbs, following an Aug. 28 mortar attack on the Sarajevo market. Holbrooke had hesitated about going to Serbia in these circumstances, but he says he recalled Nixon's bombing of Hanoi on the eve of the SALT II signing in 1972. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet President, signed anyway.

Milosevic does not even mention the bombing. He produces a piece of paper that becomes known as the "Patriarch document" because it is endorsed by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch. In it, Karadzic and Mladic cede authority to Milosevic to negotiate on their behalf. The Serbian hall of mirrors -- the same one that put Holbrooke's team on Mount Igman just 11 days earlier -- had finally been shattered. A serious negotiation had become possible.

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