Richard Holbrooke’s Rough Week

In addition to the Taliban and al Qaeda, Richard Holbooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is having to navigate the occasionally tricky field of public relations. First, The Times of London (not, I gather, all too reputable a paper, for what it’s worth) published reports that Holbrooke had dismissed the UN’s top representative in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, as “useless and ineffective.” Then The New York Times (a more trustworthy source, if still prone to overly salacious headlines) reports that Holbrooke, when he was negotiating an end to the wars in Bosnia in 1996, promised Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, currently standing trial at The Hague, that he would not be prosecuted, as part of a deal for peace.

I have no idea as to the veracity of these rumors, and each has traveled the predictable line of denial and re-accusation, but I have a couple comments nonetheless. On the first, whatever Holbrooke may or may not have said, Eide is most certainly not “useless” (as I’m sure the veteran Holbrooke recognizes, even if their notorious “short fuses” don’t match up well). By all accounts, Eide has gotten the nitty-gritty of Afghan politics, working with President Karzai to bolster Afghanistan’s democracy and stabilize its security. Overall, the UN has continued to play a large role throughout the country on a number of political, legal, and humanitarian fronts, and the United States has consistently supported its efforts.

More specifically, I object to the insinuation of this Reuters report of the supposed scandal that the United States’ appointment of Peter Galbraith as Eide’s number two is any indication of Holbrooke’s dissatisfaction with the UN head. On the contrary, I see the fact that the Obama Administration would appoint someone so high-profile as Galbraith to this spot as a pretty clear indication of its — and by extension, Holbrooke’s — support for Eide and the work that the UN is doing in Afghanistan.

In Karadzic’s case, oversimplified reports — alleging that Karadzic was guaranteed “immunity,” for example — have inflated what seems a more routine diplomatic-legal gambit. While Holbrooke has understandably — given his current position — denied any such conversations having ever taken place, it doesn’t seem implausible that some sort of offer was put on the table. Such a promise might have been the best way to guarantee peace at the time — even two officials who corroborate the story admit that “Holbrooke did the right thing and got the job done” — but I don’t think it provides sufficient justification to not even pursue a trial years down the line. This may seem cynical, but in the 1990’s, peace in Bosnia was the priority; today, Bosnians deserve justice, and Karadzic should face a fair trial to determine his culpability in the crimes of a decade ago. The question of whether Holbrooke’s alleged entreaty could be legally binding is for the Court to decide, but I don’t think that it should detract from investigating Karadzic’s role in the crimes against humanity that did occur.

(image of Holbrooke, a former U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, speaking at the UN in 2006)