You Wouldn’t Want to Be Richard Holbrooke Today …

Created: November 20, 2009 08:52 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Because The New York Times is reporting that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is now the Obama administration’s indispensable interlocutor with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Lots of gauzy quotes:

“It is critical Obama develops a channel to Karzai where hard messages can go both ways,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who helped the administration formulate its initial Afghan policy. “It is time-consuming, but we can’t hope to succeed without a political channel that works.”

Mrs. Clinton “combines the hard-headed strength, the political clout and the human understanding to do it right,” said Mr. Riedel, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Poor Richard Holbrooke! First it was Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) who overshadowed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan by brokering Karzai’s acquiescence to the (ultimately ill-faded) runoff election. And now his boss is doing a job that was supposed to fall under his portfolio. And to think Holbrooke came into office picking off sections of the Iran brief as well.

But the Obama administration doesn’t close a door without opening a window. Here’s the everyone-in-his-or-her-right-place line:

The American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, has a workable relationship with Mr. Karzai, officials said. But the two have also had their ups and downs, and anyway, some American officials say the White House needs an interlocutor at a higher level than an ambassador, or even a special envoy, like Mr. Holbrooke.

But if Eikenberry is the interlocutor for the day-to-day and Clinton is the interlocutor for the biggest crises, then Holbrooke’s interlocutory role is rather less than clear, and now Karzai knows that if he doesn’t like what Holbrooke tells him, he gets a second bite at the apple with Clinton. Perhaps Holbrooke’s more durable role in the administration is to coordinate the interagency team that he’s assembled to get diplomacy, development work, intelligence, communications and finance for Afghanistan and Pakistan all rowing in the same direction. But wait! If Stuart Bowen’s proposal for a new U.S. Office of Contingency Operations goes forward — and a formalized proposal for it is coming very soon — Holbrooke will lose that role as well. So where would that leave Holbrooke, the premiere diplomat of his generation?