The differences in their speeches revealed how distant Holbrooke’s relationship with Obama had been. The sitting president spoke with eloquence, but his remarks sounded stiff, devoid of a single personal anecdote.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, celebrated the very traits that Jones, Lute and others had derided: “There are many of us in this audience who’ve had the experience of Richard calling 10 times a day if he had to say something urgent, and of course, he believed everything he had to say was urgent. And if he couldn’t reach you, he would call your staff. He’d wait outside your office. He’d walk into meetings to which he was not invited, act like he was meant to be there, and just start talking.”
But it wasn’t until the following month, at a memorial event for Holbrooke in New York, that Clinton said what he really would have wanted to hear: “The security and governance gains produced by the military and civilian surges have created an opportunity to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process.” The United States finally had indicated a clear desire to negotiate with the Taliban.
Clinton also revealed a crucial shift in U.S. policy. The three core American requirements — that the Taliban renounce violence, abandon al-Qaeda and abide by Afghanistan’s constitution — were no longer preconditions for talks but “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” That meant the Taliban could come as they were. It was the speech that Holbrooke had sought to deliver for a year. Ironically, the only man in the administration to negotiate an end to a war had been an impediment to ending this war.
With Holbrooke gone, Lute stopped insisting on an envoy from outside the State Department. The White House empowered Holbrooke’s successor, diplomat Marc Grossman, to pursue negotiations. And Pentagon and CIA officials ceased their opposition to the prospect of talks with the Taliban.
Although military gains across southern Afghanistan had put the United States in a slightly better negotiating position by that February, nothing had changed fundamentally since Holbrooke’s last push to persuade others in the Obama administration to embrace a peace plan. Nothing except his death.
For more information about “Little America” and to read another excerpt, go to rajivc.com.