Richard Holbrooke: Our AfPak Man and Diplomatic H-bomb

Jodi Kantor published this weekend (NYT, February 7, 2009), Back on World Stage, a Larger-Than-Life Holbrooke. A must read if you’re in the short-list as ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, or an officer heading that way. BAGnewsNotes dissects the photo that accompanied the Kantor article and is reminded of John Wayne. But that squint is unmistakably Clint Eastwoody; can’t you imagine him saying – go ahead, make my day?

Kantor has quite a collection of quotable quotes:

From Christopher Hill:

“You have a problem that is larger than life,” said Christopher R. Hill, a longtime colleague expected to be named as the new ambassador to Iraq. “To deal with it you need someone who’s larger than life.”

From Strobe Talbott:

“Richard C. Holbrooke is the diplomatic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state and a friend.

From General Wesley Clark:

“Richard Holbrooke sees power the way an artist sees color,” General Clark said.

From his new boss:

“Asked about Mr. Holbrooke’s sometimes overbearing qualities, Mrs. Clinton replied with mock innocence. “Gee, I’d never heard that he could be any of those things before,” she said. Then she turned serious. “Occasionally he has to be, you know, brought down to earth and reined in.”

From his wife:

“Ms. Marton, in defending her hard-driving husband, said, “Richard is all about outcome.”

Ms. Kantor writes that “And even friends acknowledge that Mr. Holbrooke is intently focused on his own legend. (Many people have personal trainers; Mr. Holbrooke has a personal archivist.)”

It’s no wonder that his return to Foggy Bottom has “caused tremors.” Ms. Kantor explains that “His arrival at the State Department has rattled colleagues who remember him as someone who cultivates the powerful and tramples those with less to offer. Others worry about his assiduous courtship of the news media.”

He may have been gone for eight years but I’ve seen that style imitated by some up and comers at Foggy Bottom. But what’s he really like in a negotiating environment? Here is a view from the other side of the pond.

Ambassador Charles Crawford
, an FCO diplomat who later became British Ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, recollects a meeting attended by Richard Holbrooke during the Contact Group meeting in Moscow prior to the Dayton Peace Conference negotiations in November 1995:

The amazing thing was that the Americans looked twice as big as the Europeans! The US military team of course were bulked up by camouflage jackets, but they looked pretty damn big to start with. Plus Holbrooke is a larger than life character in all senses. So when everyone sat down in the tiny room I had a feeling that already the Americans had an advantage of some hard to define but real sort.

Soon the European side of the table started to make its elegant, firm and reasoned case for starting Dayton rather later.

Dick Holbrooke looked across the table in a friendly way and said something to the effect of, “Well, I’ve talked to the President. Our dates are in his diary. If you are there for the start, that will be fine. And if you’re not, that will be fine too.”

That salvo effectively ended the battle, the ‘European’ position flicked off the table like a wearying crumb.

(Read his entire post “It’s not Fair. He’s Bigger than Me”)

In another post, Ambassador Crawford writes about a later meeting in 1999:

I attended a meeting with him at the FCO in 1999 to discuss Balkan issues. Some of his US colleagues sitting next to him were literally twitching with anxiety, lest he turn on them for some mistake and flick them into professional oblivion.

His negotiating style is uniquely aggressive, but with deft and penetrating psychological thrusts. […] At the London meeting he started to open his briefcase, then rudely took a mobile phone call (“sorry, that was President Obasanjo”) to put us in our place.

Continuing with the briefcase he laboriously started to pull out some papers, then began in a deeply phoney woeful tone :

“I’m disappointed. I’m very disappointed. Really. I am. You people are not helping us here. We thought you’d be with us, and you’re not…”

You needed nerves of steel to hit back hard and well against this sort of thing, which (it must be said) most UK diplomats did and do not possess.
I have often wondered why precisely we Europeans cannot produce anyone like Holbrooke to lead our diplomatic effort with bravura and amusing confidence, plus ruthless bullying/intimidation.
Anyway, two people to pity are the US Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They know what is going to hit them.

(Read his entire post “Holbrooke Returns”)

Methinks that the tricky part is how the reporting lines and authority will be redrawn with Holbrooke’s inclusion into the picture. Sure, everybody reports to Secretary Clinton, but there are regional bureaus and functional bureaus. There are assistant secretaries of every stripe. Then there are the American Embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan – will they be under Ambassador Holbrooke’s control? If so, how will that impact the role of the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) and others? If not – well, frankly I can’t imagine that the org boxes will stay the same with him on the scene.

It’ll probably be hazy for awhile and there probably will be bruised egos along the way… but my sense is that redrawing the org chart must be done now rather than later. That would help assuage uncertainties, minimize anxieties among the career employees within that impact circle and help everyone adapt to a new reality.

I don’t work for the Secretary or any of these folks, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But from an organizational effectiveness perspective, redrawing the org chart and making sure folks are aware of the changes would make the operation function better and perhaps more importantly, help avoid the unnecessary turf battles that are bound to erupt. Our folks may be all talented and alpha this or that, but they are only human. And human behavior in organizations can take some strange turns.

The sooner this process of adaptation starts, the sooner folks can start concentrating on playing for the American team instead of working in their own silos. And they can’t start that process until they know where they sit in the white space on the organizational chart.