November 24, 2009

First Round Bust?

Sports fans know well that it’s never too early to second-guess draft picks, particularly first round selections. Often, evaluating them afterward is equally hard as beforehand. Plenty of top picks fall to earth while bottom dwellers on day bathe in champagne. Some fall quickly, others linger before crashing.

Dishing out sound-bites at a wine reception at the New American Foundation, US envoy Richard Holbrooke found himself in conversation with the Huffington Post’s Taylor Marsh, who recounts, “At one point he added that he'd seen a caption, he believed on CNN, that said "Ambassador Kerry?’ then chuckled.”

He had to laugh, what else could he do? Then he heaped praise on Senator Kerry. MIA headlines, tales of fireworks between Hamid Karzai and himself, disruptions in the chain of command - all false.

“We encouraged John to get in on this," Holbrooke said in a separate interview with Foreign Policy. "I have never seen a better interaction between a member of Congress and an executive branch on a major issue and the stakes yesterday were extraordinarily high."

As for Holbrooke himself, he’s consumed in his Washington office, feeding the White House information day and night. "I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," he said, adding, “this is the most intense policy review before a big decision that I've ever been involved in.”

The fog of Afghanistan’s election enveloped anything it touched, and judging by the events, media hype surrounding him appears to be overblown. That comes with the job.

Kerry had planned in advance to visit Afghanistan and Holbrooke’s tasks are outgrowing his hands. With a network ballooning from 15 to 30 people, he’s headed to Russia for emergency negotiations over the arms transit pact, an area outside his expertise. Holbrooke is swamped and needed everywhere during crisis mode.

But Holbrooke’s troubles started before October and before Afghanistan's election.

Part of his problem is coaching. For all the hard work Holbrooke put into the Balkans, “AfPak” makes the Balkans look like specs on a window. Population, territory, size of armies, nuclear weapons, power projection - the two conflicts don’t compare on any level.

The key difference between the Balkans and Pakistan is America’s direct influence in Afghanistan. America is part of the conflict rather than an arbitrator. “Peace negotiations,” as they’re formally known, have less of a place.

Kashmir is the hot spot in dire need of conflict resolution, but Holbrooke was taken out of the game. Obama, worried about antagonizing India, gave Holbrooke no mandate for Kashmir. India had put its foot down. Recent talk that India must be brought into “AfPak" is swiftly rejected by the government.

As a result, Holbrooke assumed a public face in Pakistan, an ambassador more than a peace broker between nations or factions. And public diplomacy isn’t Holbrooke’s strongest suit.

Holbrooke got off to a rocky start at his first press conference and didn’t looked back. The “Bulldog” is criticized for battling the Pakistani media, ignoring the region’s history, and leading high-ranking Pakistani figures around like a viceroy. He might be a wizard behind the curtain, but he’s hurting America’s public image.

Holbrooke is disliked simply because he's American, but he certainly hasn't recast himself or America's profile. Holbrooke blamed the opposition during the Kerry-Lugar uproar when his job is to explain these things. Pakistan, with its high rate of anti-Americanism, wasn’t the best spot to send a confrontational diplomat.

At this point he doesn’t have an image in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke expected a poor election, comparing it to America’s own “disputed elections,” and commendably pushed hard for a second round of voting, saying it would benefit Afghanistan. Truth earned him banishment from Karzai’s circle and his own image collapsed. Holbrooke is losing value and the bleeding won’t stop until he mends his relationship with Karzai - it’s hard to do “AfPak” without the “Af.”

Two months later, after the runoff’s cancellation, he beamed, “The administration worked seamlessly on this.” Worked seamlessly on propping up Karzai - is that the solution? Holbrooke should understand more than most how illegitimate Karzai appears if he deeply believed in a runoff.

He might even have a problem with actual strategy. P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, defended Holbrooke by revealing he’s been, “at the heart of the execution of the policy that the president enunciated in March."

As the Washington Times notes, “the current review is intended to revise the March strategy.”

Though tales of his death are likely exaggerated, Holbrooke is falling below first round expectations.

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