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Replacing Holbrooke not so easy

Holbrooke, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died after surgery to repair a tear in his aorta.

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By Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 6:28 PM

Senior State Department officials, stunned by the sudden death of uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, are concerned that the all-star team of experts he had assembled - all intensely loyal to him - may start drifting away.

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The team includes some of the most highly regarded people in matters involving the AfPak region, unquestionably top authorities such as New York University's Barnett Rubin; Vali Nasr, author of the definitive book "The Shia Revival"; Kabul-born Rina Amiri, formerly with the Soros Foundation's Afghanistan program; and John Dempsey of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has spent years in Kabul and is perhaps the top expert on rule-of-law issues. Holbrooke also lured counterinsurgency expert Vikram Singh over from the office of Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy.

Many on Holbrooke's team saw him as a change agent on Washington's way of dealing with the troubled region. State Department officials worry that those who are not career government types may head back to other jobs now that he's gone.

That's why top officials want to find someone with, if not Holbrooke's star power, then some serious bona fides.

For now, Holbrooke's deputy, veteran diplomat Frank Ruggiero, is running the shop on an acting basis while a search goes on. Longtime regional experts such as Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who ran an interagency AfPak policy review for the administration, and Jim Dobbins, special AfPak representative under George W. Bush, have the experience but not the Holbrooke aura.

Highly regarded diplomat Anne W. Patterson, who recently finished her tour as ambassador to Pakistan with an onward assignment to Cairo, might fit the bill. (No Senate confirmation required.)

Perhaps a former deputy- secretary-level type, someone like Strobe Talbott, now head of Brookings, might work, too. But he's got a pretty good job. Ditto for Ryan Crocker, another former ambassador to Pakistan, who is now heading the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Not going to be easy.

After Summers

Speaking of finding someone, the White House has yet to settle on a replacement for National Economic Council chief Larry Summers, who has gone back to Harvard. Gene Sperling, who headed the council during the Bill Clinton administration and is now a counselor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, was spotted at Blair House this week, sitting in when President Obama met with a score of CEOs. "Auditioning for the job," as one wag put it.

There's no doubt Sperling, having done the job before, could acquit himself well in the role of coordinating the administration's economic policies. But the White House, which had been hellbent on impoverishing the wealthy by returning to those onerous Clinton-era tax rates, was looking for a CEO type, someone the business community and Wall Street would see as attuned to their needs.

So now there's talk of Sperling running the NEC and perhaps investment banker Roger Altman, deputy Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, serving in a "counselor" role.

A party Christmas?

Been working your tail off during the lame-duck and haven't had time to shop for Christmas gifts for politically interested friends and family? Don't worry. There's still time - as long as you move with some dispatch.


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