Can Richard Holbrooke save American diplomacy?

Probably not, but Madeleine Albright has reason to worry: When the right wing gives up and confirms the telegenic diplomat as U.N. ambassador, his next job could be secretary of state.

Published June 28, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

Diplomats are people who are sent abroad to lie for their country. The joy of being U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is that instead of lying in some far-off foreign field, you can lie at home, and make the TV chat shows as well. We can be sure that Richard Holbrooke will take full advantage of any such opportunity if the Senate confirms his position this week after a year-long holdup by Sen. Jesse Helms, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

We can also be sure that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright knows it too, since that is how she got her present position. The U.N. ambassadorship is a cabinet post with a highly visible domestic presence. Secretaries of state often have problems with U.N. ambassadors cleverer and more telegenic than themselves. James Baker ditched the highly effective and admired Tom Pickering for that reason, and he was not even in the cabinet. Albright consistently tried to dampen Bill Richardson's enthusiasm for television appearances while he was U.N. ambassador, officially to make sure that the message was coherent -- but mostly for fear of being overshadowed.

In the case of Holbrooke, Albright's fears are soundly based. He is simply several leagues above her -- and a publicity hound to boot. Leaving a well-compensated job with Credit Suisse to become a civil servant implies some considerable degree of ambition: Albright will be lucky to see out the rest of the Clinton term. There is every expectation that Holbrooke will follow in her footsteps, especially if Gore is elected.

It has been embarrassing for Washington not to have had an ambassador for such an eventful year. It's likely that Kosovo rescued Holbrooke's nomination from the jaws of Jesse Helms' opposition. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that just because Madeleine Albright has a very chummy relationship with Helms, she was in any way involved in the long delay in Holbrooke's nomination. But one cannot help suspecting that the old lines

"Thou shalt not kill

But needst not strive

Officiously to keep alive,"

may have run through her mind occasionally about his nomination and confirmation.

Most diplomats represent their government's policy; they do not shape it. However, Holbrooke's 1995 Dayton experience promoted him into the statesman class, a considerable cut above the suave messenger-boy role so many ambassadors played in the past. Many of the diplomats canvassed at the United Nations have no doubt that he can be very effective when the full faith and credit of U.S. foreign policy is behind him -- but in recent years that is about as often as a transit of Venus.

Ambassador Sir John Weston, who returned to Britain just after Holbrooke's nomination was announced, described him as "one of the life forces in the world of the foreign-policy professionals." However, he added: "It's important to listen to what others have to say, and be seen to do so. Very often that is the secret of getting things done in the United Nations. I have no doubt that a person of Dick Holbrooke's political experience will understand that very quickly," he said, a diplomatically oblique way of casting doubt on Holbrooke's capacity to learn to listen.

Others are more explicit in their doubts about both his ethics and effectiveness. For example, in his negotiations in 1997 as special representative on Cyprus, he wanted the European Union to admit Turkey -- and did not seem to understand that Europe would not admit a country that had the death penalty, imprisoned journalists and bombed Kurds, just because it suited Washington's Middle-East policy.

Even before then, as President Jimmy Carter's assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, he loyally smoothed over the diplomatic ruffles as South Korean troops officially under U.S. command massacred thousands of protestors in the city of Kwangju in 1980. And while he would likely be a tough negotiator now with the Indonesians, in Carter's good old days he covered for Suharto as the Indonesian military killed a far higher proportion of the East Timorese population than Milosevic did of the Kosovars.

While one can excuse his behavior in the Carter administration as simply carrying out orders, in the Balkans he helped shape policy. One can hardly regard his negotiations with Slobodan Milosevic as a success, either. Convinced that the Serbian leader was a man he could do business with, Holbrooke produced the awesome mutation of the Dayton settlement that allowed the Serbs to keep their ethnically cleansed Bosnian gains, and even to regain some territory they had just lost to the Bosnian and Croatian armies. And as for Kosovo, he would be better off deleting from his risumi any mention of the deal he brokered with Milosevic last October, although to be fair, it was far from clear just how big a stick he had behind his back at the time.

Albright can take some considerable comfort from the fact that her rival will be in a very hot seat. He will arrive at the United Nations just as the world body is charged with building peace in the desert that is now Kosovo. Another U.N. headache is the chronic controversy over his nation's back dues. Parallel to Holbrooke's confirmation hearings, the Senate passed a bill to pay U.N. appropriations that unilaterally wipes out a third of the past-due amount, and decided that future payments be reduced without negotiations with other U.N. members -- members who have made it plain that they will not accept any such deal.

The only consolation is that as well as the usual loony-tunes riders the Senate added -- for example, that the United Nations promises not to take over the U.S. in the near future -- Rep. Chris Smith in the House will add his now-traditional amendment cutting international family-planning funds. That means Clinton will veto the bill, which could put the United States over two years in arrears in its U.N. dues. So Holbrooke could find himself in the embarrassing position of having a veto in the Security Council, but no vote in the General Assembly -- and no money to pay for the U.N. role in Kosovo that is essential to boost Al Gore's candidacy which may hinge on his ability to play vice-victorious warlord.

While Helms has been converted to support Holbrooke, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has been threatening to hold up his appointment unless the State Department lifts the suspension of Linda Shenwick. You might ask, Linda who? She is a perfect symbol of why even America's best friends roll their eyes when Congress gets involved in foreign policy. Shenwick for many years has been the eyes, ears, and oh-so-loud mouth, of Jesse Helms at the United Nations.

She is less a whistleblower, as Grassley thinks, and more a stoolie for the senatorial right. Whatever policy the White House, the State Department or the ambassador had, Shenwick only took instructions from Helms and his chum, former Sen. Larry Pressler. They let it be known that anyone who interfered with her tenure in any way would find it very difficult to take up an ambassadorship (or, by implication, secretary of stateship).

Her injection of congressional ignorance and arrogance into diplomacy had even America's best friends complaining about her tirades, and left her with no friends in the U.S. mission either. Flushed with the success of Kosovo, someone in State finally had the courage to suspend her June 18 for "insubordination," apparently a reference to her continual contacts with congressional aides behind the back of the mission.

So will tough-guy Holbrooke stand up to Congress, get the money for the United Nations and rescue American diplomacy from its present mess? Not if the grovel-fest of his confirmation hearings is any indication. Tamed and tutored by the year-long wait to get this far, he repeated and affirmed every fatuous prejudice of his know-nothing senatorial inquisitors. Of course he is a diplomat, with political ambitions, so it is not impossible that he may not have been sincere in his sentiments.

He will now have to choose. If he is going to be effective at the United Nations, the other ambassadors there will expect him to be more closely tied to reality than to the congressmen who think that making the Statue of Liberty a UNESCO world heritage site is a U.N. land-grab. If he is not, then we can expect more fiascoes like Rwanda and the Balkans where firm, multilateral action at the beginning would have prevented huge bloodshed for the locals and heavy financial costs for the United States later.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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