Holbrooke Not a Bulldozer and Had Six Relationships With Karzai

I think that the many tributes to Richard Holbrooke are important and wonderful, but I want folks to see beyond caricatures of a very complex and important global player.
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There are two themes that seem to find themselves in much of the emerging commentary on the life and impact of Richard Holbrooke. The first is that he was a "bulldozer" and the second that "well, he had a bad relationship with Karzai so couldn't do much with him."

This morning in the New Republic Brookings foreign policy chief Martin Indyk paints a laudatory picture of Holbrooke but also pushes this bulldozer image:

Richard Holbrooke was a diplomatic bulldozer with a seemingly limitless supply of fuel. Inevitably, the resentments of those in Washington who felt pushed aside accumulated. They almost did him in last year. Some of his close friends advised him to give up; told him it wasn't worth it. But of course Richard refused. He was never one to leave the arena in mid-fight. And just as his fortunes in Washington began to improve so too did the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation start a slow turn toward a political endgame where his talents would be most needed. Tragically, the fuel ran out last night.

Holbrooke was a convincing chameleon -- able to be either the bulldozer and tenaciously committed, results-oriented diplomat or to be the softest tactician, moving cautiously and with consideration. I saw this soft side many times in his discussion of what pieces needed to be moved in Afghanistan and how America needed to become a help and resource from seed to market to Afghan farmers rather than the cause of their impoverishment as crops were forcefully eradicated.

I also saw the "restraint" in Holbrooke's own political machinations in the Obama administration. There is no secret that some of the biggest personalities on the team were at war with one another over Afghanistan policy. In the end, Holbrooke outlasted General Stanley McChrystal and National Security Adviser Jim Jones. He prevailed over efforts by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Jones to shove him aside -- and did this not by bulldozing his rivals but by knowing when to keep his head down and his eye on the portfolio he had in front of him.

Holbrooke was refreshingly complex and a policy strategist as much as a shaper and twister of America's national security bureaucracy.

On Karzai, let's just remind that the Bush administration with Defense Secretary Bob Gates in the lead was the first to begin washing their hands of Hamid Karzai. Obama's team walked into the Afghanistan President's personal identity and anxiety crisis -- but it was not Holbrooke's job to put the support pieces in places for Karzai. His job, at that time was to construct a legitimate constitutional order with fair and free elections. This threatened Karzai. Holbrooke's efforts at rolling back corruption in Afghanistan threatened Karzai.

Holbrooke's job was not to make Karzai love him -- Holbrooke's job was to vision and work to implement in non-military ways an Afghanistan that would survive and be sustainable after Karzai.

With Karzai, Richard Holbrooke had a good relationship, a mediocre relationship, a really crappy relationship, a tense and fragile relationship, a constructive relationship, a reconstructed and happy relationship. He had all of these -- and I know directly and personally from both Holbrooke and from sources very close to Karzai that Holbrooke and the Afghan President had a highly productive, very friendly "revisioned" bonding session in April 2010 when Holbrooke traveled with General Petraeus to Afghanistan (after one of Holbrooke's first heart scares).

I think that the many tributes to Richard Holbrooke are important and wonderful -- particularly Martin Indyk's -- but I want folks to see beyond caricatures of a very complex and important global player.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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