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A More Balanced Look at the Late Richard Holbrooke

By Ray McGovern - Posted on 14 December 2010

'Giant' Holbrooke Flunked Afghanistan

By Ray McGovern

President Barack Obama has hailed Richard Holbrooke, who died Monday, as “one of the giants of American foreign policy.” The President’s kudos reflect the Establishment gravitas that Holbrooke, the special envoy overseeing U.S. policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, acquired in his long career — fact and reason to the contrary.

Apologies to those who think it is boorish to speak in anything but the most glowing terms of dead “giants.” In this case, however, the stakes are so high that it would dishonor the casualties of those ill-conceived policies, were we to yield to convenient convention.
There will be many more dead and wounded in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the time you read this. Sadly, Holbrooke is one of the Establishment “giants” responsible.

The esteemed Holbrooke, who died from a ruptured aorta at the age of 69, has already garnered much praise and attention. Do those to be killed and wounded today in “Af-Pak” -- many much closer to the beginning of their lives -- also merit some mention?

To paraphrase what Arthur Miller says of his simple salesman, such people can be just as exhausted — just as dead — as giants. The “small” must not be allowed to fall into the grave like dogs. Attention, attention must finally be paid.

Bulldozers and Giants

“Bulldozers” (the Establishment’s admiring word for noncombatant bullies and one of Holbrooke’s favorite nicknames) must not be allowed to push dirt onto those graves and cover them up, as though they do not matter.

The “giant” term also evokes images from the past — ironic ones. On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon justified invading Cambodia with these words:

“If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

With all the drama he could muster, Nixon warned, “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight. The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace?”

And so the American “bulldozer” invaded Cambodia. And we know how that turned out. Nixon failed to defeat the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong but did destabilize Cambodia, opening the door for a victory several years later by the ruthless Khmer Rouge.

After Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, as massive anti-war protests swept across the United States, his image of a powerful giant faded into a pitiable Gulliver, tied down into helplessness by millions of “small” Vietnamese and “small” Americans, too. It is a safe bet that the Afghans are now collecting the rope needed for a similar feat.

Witness to a Debacle

Richard Holbrooke should have had an even clearer recollection of the Vietnam debacle than most Americans. He watched much of it unfold firsthand but apparently never protested the folly, at least not strenuously enough to damage his career advancement.

Holbrooke was a history major at Brown in April 1961, when President John Kennedy received a fateful warning from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The then-retired general, who had commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II and battled the Chinese in the Korean War, warned Kennedy: "Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined."

When the active-duty military brass dropped broad hints they thought cowardice lay behind Kennedy’s decision to pursue negotiations rather than send reinforcements into a civil war in Laos, the young President would tell them to go convince Gen. MacArthur first.
Kennedy's top military adviser, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, said later that MacArthur's statement made a "hell of an impression on the President.”

Over the next several years, Holbrooke found himself witness to the wisdom of MacArthur’s advice. From 1963 to 1966, Holbrooke worked in Vietnam as a rising young diplomat assigned first to the rural Pacification Program, a key component in the war’s counterinsurgency strategy, and then to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Next, Holbrooke was summoned to Washington to work on a special White House team headed by a veteran of the infamous Phoenix Program that employed terrorism—yes, terrorism—to “neutralize” thousands of South Vietnamese Communist leaders.

In 1968, Holbrooke was assigned to the peace talks in Paris where special envoy Averill Harriman represented a chastened President Johnson in seeking a negotiated end to the war (only for Johnson to discover in October 1968 that Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign had sabotaged those talks by persuading South Vietnam’s President Nguyen van Thieu to boycott in exchange for promises of a better deal.)
After narrowly winning the presidency, Nixon continued the war, even expanding it into Cambodia, but to no avail. In 1973, the U.S. “giant” settled for terms that had been available in 1968 and then watched its South Vietnamese allies collapse in 1975.

Failure to Learn

But neither those direct experiences nor his studies in history seemed to have informed Holbrooke’s judgment regarding the limits of a giant’s powers.

It would have been good if one of Holbrooke’s professors at Brown had suggested he read a little Kipling:

It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles
And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.

At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;

And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.

Despite the disastrous outcomes from his early endeavors, Holbrooke found that he had earned a place in the Washington Establishment, as an operative who would get his hands dirty on the seamier side of international affairs.

Holbrooke became the Democrats’ go-to diplomat for particularly messy conflicts, such as the Balkan wars of the 1990s, situations where a strong moral compass was viewed as something of a disqualifier. Holbrooke was counted on to bulldoze through and over any ethical qualms to achieve what Washington wanted.

Obama Again Picks from the Establishment

Fast forward to the first weeks of the Obama administration.

With the arrival of a new Democratic president, Holbrooke was seen waiting in the wings for a senior diplomatic position as something to which he felt entitled. And President Obama came through just two days after taking office by naming Holbrooke special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak).

However, even assuming that Holbrooke had learned lessons from his Vietnam experiences, he didn’t show it during Obama’s fateful deliberations in his first several weeks in office, as the President threw 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan to shore up a collapsing military strategy, rather than start devising and implementing a coherent exit plan.

Instead, Holbrooke focused on building a team of hard-nosed experts to help him do whatever he was supposed to do regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan (as distinct from what the U.S. ambassadors and military commanders were already doing).

No Clue

By the summer of 2009, it had become painfully obvious that Holbrooke, with all his experience, had failed to help clarify the ambiguity surrounding the Afghan mission.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal got ready to request thousands more troops for the mission, there still wasn’t even a reasonable measuring stick for gauging progress on the vague policy goal: “to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda.”

The Center for American Progress, led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, had surprised many, including me, by endorsing Obama’s non-strategy of throwing more troops into the fray in Afghanistan (a “smart” endorsement on the Center’s part, if it wanted to safeguard its place at Obama’s table).

On Aug. 12, 2009, with considerable fanfare, Podesta’s Center hosted Holbrooke and asked him to address the policy objectives in Afghanistan and how he intended to measure success toward them.

Holbrooke bragged that he had completed amassing “the best team,” but he shed little light on what the war’s end game was to be and which plays should be called to get into the end zone. To his credit, Podesta kept repeating what he had hoped to achieve at the meeting; namely, a “focus on … our objectives in Afghanistan and how we measure progress.”

‘We’ll Know It When We See It’

Holbrooke: “We know the difference with input and output, and what you are seeing here is input. The payoff is still to come. We have to produce results and we understand that … and we’re not here today to tell you we’re winning or we’re losing. We’re not here today to say we’re optimistic or pessimistic.”

Podesta: “How do you define clear objectives of what you’re trying to succeed as outputs with the inputs that you just talked about?”

Holbrooke: “A very key question, John, which you’re alluding to is, of course, if our objective is to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda, and they’re primarily in Pakistan, why are we doing so much in Afghanistan? … If you abandon the struggle in Afghanistan, you will suffer against al-Qaeda as well. But we have to be clear on what our national interests are here …

“The specific goal you ask, John, — it is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we’ll know it when we see it.”

That adage, first used by Justice Potter Stewart a half-century ago with respect to pornography, also found favor among neo-conservatives and their supporters in Washington during George W. Bush's presidency. Holbrooke’s friend Paul Wolfowitz, then-Deputy Defense Secretary, employed it in December 2002, just three months before the U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq.

Unable to come up with any specific evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but determined to rebut Saddam Hussein’s claims that all had been destroyed after the first Gulf War, Wolfowitz quipped, “It’s like the judge said about pornography. I can’t define it, but I will know it when I see it.” An ardent supporter of the attack on Iraq, Holbrooke apparently thought that approach just fine.

The phrase earned knowing chuckles around the power tables of Washington, but it amounted to punting – a shanked punt at that – when justifying the dispatch of American soldiers into bloody conflicts.

A Protest

Given Holbrooke’s inability to explain a clear path toward success in Afghanistan, it should have come as no surprise when former Marine Corps captain and State Department official Matthew Hoh resigned in September 2009. Hoh explained that he had “lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan … why, and to what end?”

Hoh added, “many Afghans … are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there … the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.”

It was an articulate critique, with which former Vietnam-era diplomat Holbrooke himself stated that he largely agreed. Largely agreed?

Don’t be upset if you are confused over why Holbrooke would plow ahead with a policy that he knew to be severely flawed. After all, he had become accustomed to doing precisely that for nearly five decades.

I imagine Matthew Hoh will be joining many of us in pain amid all the encomia to be showered on Richard Holbrooke in the days ahead. But the greatest tragedy may be that he could have made a difference – and chose not to.

And, in the curious standards of Official Washington, Holbrooke’s circumspection and silence – even as countless “small” people got wounded and killed – is cause for lionizing him in death.

Disdain for the ‘Small’

In a final irony – as Holbrooke is laid to rest – the results of a military-dominated White House review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is to be announced this week with the expectation that the review will simply reaffirm the goal to “defeat, destroy, dismantle” the 50 or so al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan.

I shall be surprised if there emerges any sensible, identifiable strategy with metrics to assess success or failure.
And the American troops? It is hard to escape the conclusion that Holbrooke shared the view of Henry Kissinger, another devotee of Realpolitik diplomacy who had little regard for the humanity and value of common soldiers.

In the book Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed its Own POWs in Vietnam, Kissinger is quoted as saying: “Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”

So, amid the eulogies and euphemisms for Holbrooke, it may be time to insist that – regarding the “small” people, not just the “giants” – attention must finally be paid.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is a former Army infantry/intelligence officer and CIA analyst, and serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

This article appeared first on


The giants may think they are "all that" but I am sure "small people" all over the world are rejoicing in the news about Holbrooke (many of them in Afghanistan). Is it possible that that fool really told his doctor to end the war in Afghanistan on his deathbed? How does he think the doc is going to do that?

As for dogs and other animals -- it is well not to act as if their lives mean nothing. Americans often morn deeply the death of their pets. In fact, every animal values its own life unless it is made unlivable through circumstances beyond its control. Even though animals are often mistreats as non-feeling beings that only reveals the ignorance of humans and their inflated sense of self-importance.

Another little giant has died. I sure miss my dog Rocket.

Excerpting from Ray McGovern's article:

No Clue

By the summer of 2009, it had become painfully obvious that Holbrooke, with all his experience, had failed to help clarify the ambiguity surrounding the Afghan mission.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal got ready to request thousands more troops for the mission, there still wasn’t even a reasonable measuring stick for gauging progress on the vague policy goal: “to defeat, destroy, dismantle al-Qaeda.”

The Center for American Progress (my emphasis), led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, had surprised many, including me, by endorsing Obama’s non-strategy of throwing more troops into the fray in Afghanistan (a “smart” endorsement on the Center’s part, if it wanted to safeguard its place at Obama’s table).

Why would that be a surprise?

"Obama Mania"
by Stephen Lendman, Nov. 10, 2008


John Podesta

From 1998 - 2001, he was Clinton's chief of staff, and in the 1980s, served as legal counsel for various congressional committees. He's the founder and current president of the Center for American Progress, a Democrat party front group claiming progressive credentials that got seed money from investor and Obama advisor Warren Buffett. He's also a visiting law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and since 1988 the head of the Podesta Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm representing corporations like Lockheed Martin, BP, and Walmart as well as trade associations among its other clients. The Washingtonian magazine ranked him the third most powerful city lobbyist.


The Nation magazine's David Corn praised his appointment and called Emanuel "an intelligent, fierce, competent, and sharp Washington agent of change....and guy who gets things done." Corn also hailed Obama's victory and called him "one of the most progressive (or liberal) nominees in the Democratic Party's recent history." Looking ahead to his presidency, he represents "hope and change. He opposed the Iraq war....Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He was no advocate of let-'er-rip, free market capitalism or American unilateralism. In policy terms, Obama represents a serious course correction....And more."

In fact, Obama is mostly opposite of what Corn suggests. On financial and economic matters alone, his Transitional Economic Advisory Board reveals it. All its 17 members are high-level corporate and financial types plus Democrat party insiders. CEOs like Warren Buffet, Robert Rubin and head of four major corporations Penny Pritzker with more about her below regarding her dubious business dealings and influential role in an Obama administration. His other Brain Trust members (as the Wall Street Journal calls them) are:


-- Paul Volker - former Fed chairman with more on him below;

-- Rahm Emanuel - congressman and incoming White House chief of staff; it's the most important administration post after the president and a Dick Cheney type vice-presidency;

-- Richard Parsons - chairman of Time Warner;

-- Anne Mulcahy - CEO of Xerox;

-- Lawrence Summers - former Treasury secretary with more on him below;

-- Roger Ferguson - CEO of TIAA-CREF financial services;

-- John Podesta - transition team head;


Noticeably absent - anyone representing ordinary people. ... A rigid class society, white supremacism, and neoliberalism are safe in his hands.

-- he's for permanent occupation of Iraq;

-- America's imperial agenda;

-- militarism and foreign wars;

-- new ones against Pakistan; possibly Iran as well;

-- an enlarged military;

-- more troops to Afghanistan;

-- a new Cold War with Russia;


In his latest Times commentary, our newest economics Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, agreed in calling November 4 "a date that will live in fame. If the election of our first African-American president didn't stir you, if it didn't leave you teary-eyed and proud of your country, there's something wrong with you. But will the election also mark a turning point in the actual substance of policy? Can Barak Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes he can."


It will await a future one before they realize they were fooled again. The nation will remain in safe elitist hands. It won't get "a new New Deal" Krugman advocates given the names being floated to serve in it who seem to have passed under the radar screens of the above commentators.

Tom Daschle

The former Senate majority leader. Now a special policy advisor at the Alston & Bird law firm and visiting professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He's also a senior fellow at John Podesta's Center for American Progress (my emphasis). Possible posts mentioned include secretary of state, health and human resources for his work on health care, and agriculture for the same reason.


"Obama’s transition: A who’s who of imperialist policy"
by Alex Lantier,, Nov. 19, 2008


Obama's transition team is of a piece with these maneuvers. It is co-chaired by Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago real estate magnate and confidante of Obama, and John Podesta, former chief-of-staff for President Bill Clinton and head of the Podesta Group, a Washington lobbying firm. The transition team employs 450 people and has a budget of $12 million. It includes several "review teams" to prepare recommendations for the incoming administration's nominations and policy.


The co-chairs of the Department of Defense review team are John White, who served as deputy secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and recently headed the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative at Harvard University, and Michèle A. Flournoy, deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank.

Members of CNAS, a rather small Washington think tank with a staff of 30 employees founded in 2003 by Podesta and Flournoy, play an outsized role in the Obama transition team. ...


"Merchants of Death: Exposing Corporate-financed Holocaust in Africa

White Collar War Crimes, Black African Fall Guys"

by Keith Harmon Snow,, Dec. 8, 2008


From 2000 to at least 2004, Yoweri Museveni was co-chair of the euphemistically named Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa (PCHPA). The PCHPA is a front for multinational corporations and USAID, a Christian-based "soft policy" wing of the Pentagon that uses food as a weapon under the disguise of charity. Other PCHPA chairs include former U.S. Senator and Alston & Bird lawyer Bob Dole; Peter Seligman, Chair and CEO of Conservation International, an NGO connected to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and Jane Goodall Institute operations in DRC; George Rupp, President of the International Rescue Committee, a flak-producing organization involved in DRC; and Alpha Konare, the former Chair of the Commission of the African Union (2003-2008), the governing body responsible, for example, for oversight of the supposedly "neutral" African Union "peacekeeping" force in Darfur, Sudan—a force that again deploys RDF forces as proxies to secretly further U.S./U.K. interests.

One PCHPA director also represents Bread for the World, a protectionist and nationalistic U.S.-based Christian evangelical "charity" whose directors include Bob Dole and former White House cabinet officials Mike McCurry and Leon Panetta. Along with Thomas Pickering, Susan Rice, Gayle Smith, Donald Payne, Ed Royce, John Podesta (my emphasis), Anthony Lake, Bill and Hillary Clinton and others, these are the architects of covert operations in Africa during the Clinton years.[48]


It clearly shouldn't have been a surprise that the Center for American Progress and, therefore, John Podesta, endorsed "Obama’s non-strategy of throwing more troops into the fray in Afghanistan".

Keith Snow's newer Web site is, while his older, but still available, Web site is, btw.

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