One of America’s most experienced diplomats, Richard Holbrooke, passed away today after suffering heart problems over the weekend. Tonight the cable news shows are devoting much time to his career, focusing primarily on his early years as a foreign service officer in Vietnam and his famous role as chief negotiator of the Bosnian Peace Accords.
I understand that Holbrooke’s family, friends and colleagues around the world are mourning his death, and I join them in honoring his life and service to his country. However, I have written extensively, and mostly negatively, about Holbrooke over the past 30 years, and I would be remiss if I did not offer my thoughts on his legacy, focusing on his tenure and actions as President Carter’s chief Asian diplomat from 1977 to 1981.
These paragraphs are lifted from a 2008 article for The Progressive, where I analyzed Holbrooke’s central role in Carter’s Cold War-driven policies to support Indonesia’s vicious war against East Timor independence fighters and back the South Korean military after one of its generals seized power in a bloody coup in May 1980. Neither episode, and neither country, is mentioned in the Washington Post’s extensive obituary which appeared only a few hours ago.
Incidentally, while I was reporting this piece (I was living near Reno, Nevada, at the time) I was told that Holbrooke grew to regret some of his decisions in Asia. I hope so.
One person to watch is Richard Holbrooke. Bill Clinton’s U.N. ambassador, Holbrooke saddled up with Hillary. But ever since he left the Carter Administration, he has been widely viewed within the Democratic Party as a Secretary of State in-waiting, and he himself has strenuously campaigned for the job. If he is elected in November, President Obama would come under enormous pressure from both the Clinton camp and his Democratic supporters—including John Kerry, who relied on Holbrooke during the 2004 campaign—to make him Secretary of State.
Holbrooke, however, carries a lot of baggage—some of it pretty unsightly. He was a State Department official in Vietnam during the 1960s, and under President Carter served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. During those years, he helped provide key assistance to U.S.-backed dictators in South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. His constant refrain was the preservation of U.S. national security interests in the region. After Park Chung Hee, the South Korean dictator, was shot to death in 1979 after eighteen years of increasingly brutal rule, for example, Holbrooke exploded in anger when Christian dissidents protested the continuation of martial law. Their actions, he complained in declassified documents I obtained in 1996, were making it difficult for the United States to avoid “another Iran” in that country.
And like Brzezinski, Holbrooke lent enormous assistance to Suharto’s military to put down the Timorese resistance. Among the weapons systems sold to Suharto with U.S. support were A-10 Broncos that were used to strafe Timorese villages. “If you look at the statistics, from 1976 to 1978 we massively increased our assistance that made the occupation and quelling of the [East Timor] rebellion possible,” Edmund McWilliams, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in Indonesia during the Clinton Administration, told me. “To my mind, that was when the great bloodletting took place, and it was all done during the watch of Richard Holbrooke and Jimmy Carter, the human rights President.”
Holbrooke also was hawkish on Iraq and has had harsh words for Iran, comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.
Many liberals, including those in the Obama camp, seem to believe that Holbrooke has changed his spots and would make an excellent choice as America’s top diplomat. Last February, Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a former Obama adviser, spoke at a foreign policy forum in Reno, Nevada. I was in the audience, and asked her if Holbrooke would have a place in an Obama Administration.
Power, who won a Pulitzer for her book on genocide, was still working as Obama’s top foreign policy adviser at that point. She replied that, in her opinion, Holbrooke “had evolved” from the 1970s, and regretted some of his actions during that period, particularly in the Philippines, where he backed Ferdinand Marcos (she didn’t mention Korea or Indonesia). Despite his position as a senior adviser to Clinton, Power added, Holbrooke would be welcome in an Obama cabinet. “We won’t exclude people working for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Ours will be a broad tent.” (Note: She was right – Holbrooke eventually became a key player in the administration’s Afghanistan policies).