The Holbrooke/Obama controversy is heating up again. As Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 until his death in 2010, Richard Holbrooke, the renowned hard-charging American diplomat, stirred up considerable controversy in the administration by strongly pressing for negotiations with the Taliban over the objections of Obama’s White House staff and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. As recounted in an excerpt in the March-April issue of Foreign Policy magazine, from an about-to-be published book, The Dispensable Nation, by one of Holbrooke’s closest advisors, Vali Nasr, currently Dean of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Nasr claims that Holbrooke tried to convince President Obama that the best solution to the Afghan conflict was to seek a diplomatic solution even while waging war.
But, Nasr says, in Obama’s long 2009 review of Afghan policy, the president refused to consider any political settlement over armed engagement. As Nasr observes, “going against the military would make the president look weak. So Obama chose the politically safe option that he did not like: He gave the military what it asked for”—namely, a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops. Even in regards to Pakistan, Nasr asserts, Obama chose the “tough-guy approach” rather than one of “strategic dialogue,” which the United States had used in relations with China and India.
Of course, Obama had many difficult balancing problems at home with Republicans over the Afghanistan (and Iraq) wars, so he had other considerations to weigh in any of his decisions. He may have given the Pentagon additional forces just to give himself cover in order to maneuver his way out of the conflict in 2014. Whatever the case, Nasr’s critique does bring home a self-evident truth—namely, that Democratic presidents seem to feel that they have to show that they are tougher on national security than Republicans—and this inevitably leads them into a trap of sending troops or weaponry willy-nilly abroad as a consequence, or, in some cases, avoiding any action for fear of Vietnam-type entrapment. Remember JFK on the Bay of Pigs, LBJ on Vietnam, Carter on Afghanistan, Clinton on Rwanda. One hopes that Obama, in his second term, will have passed over any need to prove his manhood once again in international affairs and will handle the upcoming crises in Iran and North Korea on their merits rather than the for reasons of belligerent showmanship.