Leadership through Global Challenges

Brown Journal of World Affairs: You’ve been out of government for seven years now. What is it like to view foreign policy from a civilian perspective?

Richard Holbrooke: Well, I've been in and out of the government four or five times since I graduated from Brown University in 1962. So I'm used to that, and alternating has given me varied perspectives. Inside government, you get caught up in the day-to-day challenges, crises, and bureaucratic wars. On the outside, you have a broader but less informed perspective. But each perspective is useful. The problem this time around for me is that the Bush administration has performed at a historically bad level. And as a result of that, I watch the administration’s performance with great chagrin and alarm. The country is headed in the wrong direction, and I think that's pretty widely understood.

Journal: What do you believe are the emerging threats to U.S. security?

Holbrooke: We certainly face the threat associated with the alienation of the majority of Muslims around the world, and also with the development of an adversarial relationship between Western democracies and Muslim extremists. But there is a vast untapped list of issues that the administration has pushed aside, including global warming, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and access to water resources. A whole host of issues has been pushed aside or minimized because of Iraq and because of the value system of this administration.

Whoever is the next president—whether he or she is a Republican or a Democrat—is going to have to deal with these issues. There's no possibility that the next president can continue the current policies without a major disaster and mounting escalation of costs to the nation.

Journal: What is the most viable solution to the problems in Afghanistan?

Holbrooke: The war in Afghanistan is going to be with us a long time after Iraq is over. Afghanistan is where al Qaeda came from, and the Taliban must be defeated or else there will be a resurgence of al Qaeda. This demands a long-term commitment. So far, the war in Afghanistan has not gone as well as it should have. Osama bin Laden hasn’t been captured, the Taliban has rebounded, and the drug eradication program is a complete failure—I emphasize the word complete. Still, the overwhelming majority of Afghan people don't want the Taliban to come back, and that is something to build on. But we cannot stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. If you stay too long, people will just say, “Hey, you’re trying to take our country over.” This is particularly true in Afghanistan, which has a long history of xenophobia. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay before we become the problem instead of the solution. You never know in advance whether it will be two years or five years or more; you only know that the window’s closed after it has happened. So it’s important that we make progress in dealing with drugs and corruption, while building up local capabilities, and giving women opportunities. These are really essential things, and we must succeed in the battle against the Taliban—all these things are related. I want to make one last point about Afghanistan: we cannot fix Afghanistan as long as al Qaeda and the Taliban use Pakistan as a sanctuary. Pakistan must be dealt with, which is very difficult, because Pakistan is explosive but strategically critical.

Journal: How would you suggest that the United States go about trying to secure or engage in operations in the northwest frontier region of Pakistan, where al Qaeda is said to be?

Holbrooke: That’s an incredibly difficult problem, because the northwest region is remote. It was never under the control of Karachi, Islamabad, or Lahore, even in the old days, and the tribal structure has to be respected. But into this tribal structure have come some outsiders such as the Taliban, and double outsiders like al Qaeda, who aren’t even Pashtun. The Taliban and al Qaeda have to be dealt with, and the best way to do it is to get the local people to handle them. I don’t think they can be dealt with by the Pakistani army, and certainly not by the United States. If the United States went into the northwest frontier, it is easy to predict what would happen––chaos, resistance, animosity, hostility. We would become the problem instead of the solution, so we should find a way to enlist the support of the local leadership.

Journal: How do you believe the United States should answer China’s rise, both militarily and economically?

Holbrooke: First of all, China is not our enemy, it’s our adversary. It is an economic competitor, but we have a lot of tasks that we want to accomplish together, like promoting stability in the region and encouraging peaceful economic growth. There are areas of real differences—such as Tibet, Taiwan, and economic policies—and those have to be dealt with. In dealing with North Korea, the Chinese were very helpful, but they have less helpful with Burma, Darfur, and Iran. However, we should not let ourselves turn the Chinese into our new enemy. The United States has a long and complicated history with China going back a century and a half. The connections are very deep between China and the United States. And as two of the largest countries in the world economically, Sino–U.S. relations constitute the most important bilateral relationship in the world. We are also the two largest polluters in the world. There are many things we can do together, and we must try. I think a major effort to make China our partner in as many things as possible, while also agreeing to disagree on other things, is the right general construct for the relationship.

Journal: You have recently done a lot of work in AIDS prevention. What role should AIDS prevention play in U.S. foreign policy?

Holbrooke: This is the one area where I think President Bush deserves some real credit. He proposed, at the beginning of 2003, a major international program on AIDS, which Congress supported. On a bipartisan basis, the U.S. government put together a program through which the United States has already appropriated over $13 billion to fight AIDS. Due to our leadership the rest of the world has more than matched our contributions. If we hadn't taken that leadership role, the rest of the world wouldn't have done anything. It is highly leveraged money that saved several million people who are now on antiretrovirals. That's a great achievement in the tradition of the Marshall Plan and other plans, and all Americans should feel proud of that. Having said that, I need to underscore one key point: we are not winning the war against HIV/AIDS, even by the simplest of measurements. For every person who goes on antiretrovirals, six people get infected. Would you call that a winning number? No—that's a statistic we can't call a win, so I think that we have to be very realistic about this. We are not winning and we won't win until we increase the emphasis we’re placing on prevention. We shouldn’t do this at the expense of people on treatment, since everyone who's affected should get access to treatment—but every ounce of prevention is also worth a pound of cure. And prevention depends upon testing; unless you know who has the disease, you can't prevent it.

Journal: Considering your role in negotiating the Dayton Accords, which you chronicle in your book To End a War, what is your take on Bosnia’s progress since the accords?

Holbrooke: The number one thing we set out to achieve has been achieved in Bosnia: in the twelve years since the Dayton Agreement the war has not resumed, and it will not resume. Now, is the country a model of democracy and peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups? No. There is still a lot of hatred there, and there’s still a huge amount of corruption. And the war created a lot of ethnic mafioso. So Bosnia is not your ideal world unless you’re a car smuggler. There is a lot of human trafficking going on there, too. But it is at peace and it is making progress. And a lot of it is coming back together, and that's a tremendous achievement. There is still a long way to go, and the international community should not turn its back on it.

Journal: What would you say are the major barriers to further development and reconciliation in Bosnia?

Holbrooke: The leadership and the criminal gangs that dominate areas—above all, the Serbian criminal gangs in the Bosnian areas are the worst of the crooks. NATO's failure to capture Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić for the last twelve years has been a disastrous mistake. It concerned me from the beginning, and in the nine years since I wrote To End a War they still haven't captured them. They are the Osama bin Ladens of Europe.

Journal: In To End a War, you argue that one of the reasons the United States intervened decisively in Bosnia was the moral issues raised by the genocide. Why has this moral imperative failed to materialize given all that we know about the genocide in Darfur?

Holbrooke: That's a terrific question with multiple answers. First, 9/11 created new priorities, and our resources were focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, nobody quite knew what to do about Darfur because it's so remote. I've been to Darfur, and the first thing that strikes you there is that there are almost no roads or airstrips that aren't dirt, which means that they turn into mud when it rains, and so it's hard to get around. Third, the Chinese blocked efforts to place heavy pressure on the Sudanese government for a long time. Fourth, many people don't think Africa is as important as Europe—they're wrong, but that's their view. So a whole series of issues pushed Darfur off the front of the agenda from the beginning, and as a result it has gotten progressively worse. In fact, Darfur illustrates a key point about crisis diplomacy, which is that the longer you wait to deal with a problem, the more expensive and difficult it is to deal with.

Journal: You mentioned China’s support of the Sudanese government as a factor in the continued genocide in Darfur. Earlier you said that we should cooperate with China—

Holbrooke: Where we can.

Journal: Yes, where we can. So in crises like Darfur, do you think that it would be in the United States’ long-term interest to stop the genocide even if it meant a diplomatic showdown with the Chinese?

Holbrooke: I'm perfectly happy with a diplomatic disagreement with the Chinese on this issue. In fact, we should disagree, because the Chinese position is not strong enough. The pressure exerted on China by global public opinion and by the people who link China's position in Darfur to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 had an effect on the Chinese. They appointed a special envoy on the issue who has gotten involved and the Chinese changed their position a little bit. Not enough, but they changed it a little. So, as I said earlier, we should look for areas of common ground with China, but not be afraid to disagree with them. And on Darfur, that's an easy one. What's trickier is when you get to Burma, because Burma is on the Chinese border and it's very far away from the United States, which makes it harder to deal with. Also in the case of Burma, India is a big factor, and the Indian position on Burma has been worse than the Chinese position. In the last few months of 2007, the Indians were even less concerned about the outrages in Burma than China was. And the United States has lost a lot of its leadership credibility because of Iraq.

Journal: You frequently mention Russia in your editorials for the Washington Post. What's the best way for the United States to improve its relations with Russia?

Holbrooke: Well, the Russians are the cause of the deteriorations in U.S.–Russian relations, not the United States. Under President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, the two countries worked quite cooperatively on issues as complicated as Kosovo and Bosnia. But Putin decided to put Russia back on the world stage as a leading player. There's nothing wrong with that—he has every right to do that—but he did it by taking very obstructionist positions on issue after issue, such as Kosovo, Georgia, energy resources, and missile defense. Meanwhile, the Bush administration gave Russia a free pass. President Bush himself did something in the summer of 2007 that I found quite incredible: he invited Vladimir Putin for a weekend clambake at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, making him the first foreign leader to ever be given that honor. Tony Blair didn't get it, Angela Merkel didn't get it, and as a result of this the United States got nothing in return, except for continued obstructionism from Russia on all the major issues. The Bush administration seems to be having difficulty dealing with the reality of what has happened in Russia, at least in public.

Journal: You stated that success in rebuilding Kosovo depends on a Russian shift in its foreign policy stance. Is there any way that you would envision the United States maintaining reasonable relations with Russia while ensuring that Russia does not violate the autonomy of countries within its sphere of influence?

Holbrooke: Well, the United States can disagree with Russia, but again, we are not returning to the cold war. What I’m saying is that U.S. relations with Russia have become increasingly difficult and need to be fixed. The only thing that can fix them is a new administration. It isn’t certain that a new administration can fix it, but the current administration has no chance of fixing any of these issues. Time is too short and they are too discredited. And that’s one of the great advantages of a democracy: in the democratic system, every few years—every four years in our case—the people have a chance to send a message. And the message is either for change or continuity, in its simplest form. Similarly, every two years they vote in the Congress. In November of 2006, by the narrowest of margins, the U.S. public voted the Republicans out of the Senate and out of the House. That small margin was a wake-up call of the most enormous dimensions to the people, to the president, and to the world that the U.S. public wanted change. It wasn’t by a large margin, but I would guess that the margin in favor of change will only increase in 2008.

Journal: You spoke earlier about how you would address the kind of structural changes needed in U.S. foreign policy. Is there anything else you would like to say that you maybe have not touched on yet?

Holbrooke: There are a lot of other things that need to be fixed. I don’t think it’s such a great idea to have a vice president who runs an independent and separate branch of the government with his own separate national security staff, for example. I think that really has helped paralyze the government. I think the senior people in the United States government must be picked in a way that makes them more congenial and more compatible. The open and continual warfare between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was extraordinary and very dangerous for the United States.

There is also the question of private contractors, the Blackwaters and the DynCorps of the world. The Bush administration has subcontracted—or, if you will, privatized—foreign policy and handed it out to politically compatible groups, and not just to military contactors like Blackwater. Foreign aid goes to faith-based organizations with no checks, no end-user response, and no way of making sure that we are carrying out policy. It is not a very good system.

International economic issues have fallen into disregard and disorganization. Many of the senior positions in the U.S. government are now completely vacant. The Department of Homeland Security is in complete shambles and has not yet come together. The visa problem for foreigners coming in to the United States is so great that we are losing many people who used to seek an American education to Australia or Britain or Germany now. There are dozens and dozens of structural issues which have gone off the rails—I’m not even talking about the Pentagon, which I will leave out of this discussion. But wide-ranging government reform and revitalization is vital. When I graduated from Brown, John F. Kennedy was president and we all thought that public service in government was the highest thing we could do, a noble calling. Today it isn’t the same. People don’t want to be involved in public service, and so we now need inspirational political leadership that can revitalize the respect for public service.