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Richard C. Holbrooke
Richard C. Holbrooke
Special Section: One Year Later
Special Report: America at War
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One Year Later:
Diplomacy and Tracking Terrorists

With The Hon. Richard C. Holbrooke
Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations

Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2002; Noon ET

Shortly after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, military leaders, diplomats and policy experts began debating the U.S.'s course of action. How should we answer the attacks? Should we send in troops? How do we find an elusive enemy?

The Hon. Richard C. Holbrooke, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, was one of the first U.S. experts and the first of the diplomatic community, to discuss not only terrorists as a threat to U.S. security, but also the threats posed by the states who sponsor them. Holbrooke was online Tuesday, Sept. 10, to discuss the ongoing war on terrorism, impending U.S. involvement in Iraq and our strategy for dealing with nations where terrorists operate.

Holbrooke served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. from 1999-2001. During the Clinton administration, Holbrooke was assistant secretary of State for Europe (1994-1996) and was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. He later served as President Clinton's special envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo and special envoy to Cyprus, and served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1993-1994. During the Carter administration (1977-1981), he served as the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and was in charge of U.S. relations with China at the time Sino-American relations were normalized in December, 1978. Holbrooke joined the foreign service in 1962, working in Vietnam, the State Department, the Johnson White House and as a Peace Corps director in Morocco. Holbrooke has written extensively about foreign policy, serving as managing editor of Foreign Policy and writing numerous articles and two books: "To End a War," a memoir of the Dayton negotiations, and co-author of "Counsel to the President," Clark Clifford's memoir, as well as one volume of The Pentagon Papers.

Holbrooke has received 18 honorary degrees and numerous awards; including six Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Currently in the private sector as vice chairman of Perseus, he serves on the boards and is active in many global organizations focusing on cultural and business exchange. He is a counselor at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Ambassador Holbrooke, and welcome. Do you expect President Bush's address Thursday to the United Nations to effectively make a case for U.S. involvement with Iraq? Do you think that the administration's priority on coalition building for the war on terror is less for Iraq, given that the president has expressed a willingness to "go it alone" if necessary?

Richard C. Holbrooke: I do not have any inside information, of course, on what the president will say. However, we all recognize that this speech has taken on unusual importance because the international community has overwhelmingly stressed to Washington in recent days the importance of going through the UN Security Council in order to create a international consensus. So much rides on this speech. I hope that President Bush will acknowledge the importance of using the international system -- one created by Americans from FDR on -- to build support for the case against Saddam. Aside from the rhetoric, "going it alone" is not a realistic option, as any military leader will tell you.

San Francisco, Calif.: What should the U.S. government be doing to increase the stability of Afghanistan so that the Taliban would not gain power there again? Should there be something like a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan? What should be done about the warlords in Afghanistan who are resisting the pro-American government there?

Richard C. Holbrooke: The initial military success in Afghanistan -- which was predictable, and indeed I did predict it -- has not been followed up with the kind of agressive peacekeeping and nation building effort that is required. I have already written about this issue in the Washington Post, as early as last November. Two critical errors were made, which I hope will be corrected quickly; it is not too late, although valuable time has been lost. The first mistake was to strengthen the local warlords -- most of whom are also druglords who supply much of the world's heroin -- and that decision has weakened the very central government, that of President Karzai, which Washington is trying to strengthen. I believe that we should warn the warlords that they are on very thin ice and act with greater firmness towards them. The second mistake was to limit the International Security Assistance Force to the city of Kabul and provide it with no American direct involvement. Thus Karzai's writ extends little further than downtown Kabul, as can been seen by the assassination attempt against him in Kandahar last week. Again, it is not too late to deal with these problems. Something similar is likely to face us, with vastly different circumstances in a post-Saddam Iraq.

washingtonpost.com: Op-Ed: After the Taliban (The Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2001)

New York, N.Y.: Why do you think the administration has reportedly dropped the references to alleged links between al Qaeda and Iraq?

Richard C. Holbrooke: I suspect that the reason is quite simple: they do not have "smoking gun" evidence linking Iraq and al-Qaeda, and they recognize that the case against Saddam must stand on its own merits -- that is, that he is the most dangerous leader in the world today. (Incidentally, that is my own view as well.)

Cumberland, Md.: As the number of nations who are members of the UN increase, don't you think that the UN has become a stumbling block to action? Also how do you view Kofi Annan in view of his frequent anti-U.S. position?

Richard C. Holbrooke: I could write a book on this subject, but I don't think many people would read it. Everyone seems to have their mind made up on the UN, but few people seem to know what it is. We are talking here only -- I repeat, only -- about the Security Council, a 15-nation body on which the United States sits as a permanent member with a veto. While the UN is a deeply flawed institution -- inefficient, cumbersome, and sometimes corrupted -- it remains indispensable as a part of effective American foreign policy. Notice that yesterday French President Chirac held open French support on Iraq if we got Security Council approval. As for Kofi Annan, he is not anti-American. Quite the contrary. I know him well and consider him a friend. As the Secretary General of the UN, he is obligated to act on behalf of all 190 nations (Switzerland is joining today), but most of the time he has functioned in a superb manner. While the United States will not agree with him all of the time, I believe he is the best Secretary General the UN has had in at least 40 years.

Washington, D.C.: I recently saw "Blackhawk Down." Do you think there is any merit to the notion that the Sept. 11 terrorists and their ilk felt empowered by the quick withdrawal of U.S. forces following the Mogadishu firefight?

Richard C. Holbrooke: Yes. This powerful and accurate movie, while it does not address the question you raise, does reflect the fact that after our 1993-94 withdrawal from Somalia our enemies in the world probably felt emboldened. When we began the bombing of Bosnia in 1995, followed by even more intense bombing during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, I think we reestablished America's willingness to act. But Somalia did real damage.

Del Rio, Tex.: Ambassador Holbrooke, what is your opinion on the purported split between those who believe Israel and Palestine should be on the road to peace before we get involved with Iraq, and those who believe the Israel-Palestine question is irrelevant to Iraq?

Richard C. Holbrooke: This is a complicated issue. Frankly, I have gone back and forth on it. My current thinking is as follows: If we believe that Iraq is a real and present danger, we must proceed to deal with it without a prior resolution of the Mideast problem. I say that because the chances of a solution, or even a viable and effective peace process, are so remote in the near term.

Cumberland, Md.: Where you aware of the KLA and Bosnian Muslims' ties to Osama bin Laden at the time you were negotiating with them?

Richard C. Holbrooke: Yes. In fact, we were so concerned about this issue that we wrote into the Dayton Peace Agreements a clause requiring the withdrawal of all "foreign elements" within a short time after the agreement took force. When we found elements that had remained behind, we launched raids against them. Not all of these people were removed, and the effort is still continuing. Without the peace in Bosnia, there is a real chance that bin Laden would have been able to set up in the Balkans what he did in Afghanistan with far greater danger to the West.

Washington, D.C.: You mentioned that you don't think the U.S. has done enough "nation-building" in Afghanistan. Why does this always fall on the U.S.? Don't our allies bear some of the responsibility for the rebuilding and ongoing safety of the post-Taliban Afghanistan?

Richard C. Holbrooke: I have never said that the US should carry the burden alone. In Bosnia and Kosovo the bulk of the peacekeepers and the overwhelming percentage of the foreign assistance comes from the Europeans. This is also true in Afghanistan where the peacekeeping force is currently lead by Turkey and most of the aid comes from Europe and Japan.

New York, N.Y.: As former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, you have significant experience dealing with Germany. Do you have any real concerns that Chancellor Schroeder's adamant views on Iraq will cause any harm to U.S.-German relations? Do you think that his very vocal, public stance on Iraq is helping to resolve the current crisis?

Richard C. Holbrooke: What is happening between Washington and Berlin right now should be viewed within the prism of the fact that the German election is 12 days away. I hope that, regardless of who wins, US-German relations will resume their historically close basis thereafter.

Arlington, Va.: The consensus among old hands such as yourself seems to be that we should not go into Iraq, and definitely without allies, but what part of that is the calculation that we can't do what we should have done in l991? That is, if we go in, that proves Bush I erred in not taking him out back then. Also, if Clinton was fixated on bin Laden, why didn't he do something? Thanks for your service.

Richard C. Holbrooke: I am not among those "old hands" who thinks we should not go into Iraq. I support the goal of regime change strongly, and I would support the administration if they go that route. My concern, expressed twice on the Washington Post op-ed page in the last three weeks, is that we can't do it alone, and the way to build support is through the UN Security Council. As for 1991, I believe that the failure to finish off Saddam was a serious mistake. Even within the Security Council resolutions, I believe this could have been undertaken. It would not have involved US troops in Baghdad, but rather a communication with the Iraqi general staff that they faced a choice between destruction on the ground and getting rid of Saddam.

washingtonpost.com: Op-Ed: Give Diplomacy More Time (The Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2002)

Arlington, Va.: It seems you have primarily served Democratic presidents. At the same time, there is an longstanding Washington guideline that "politics stops at the water's edge." How do you personally draw lines about when it is -- and is not -- appropriate to publicly second guess the president's foreign policy?

Richard C. Holbrooke: I began my government service as a career Foreign Service Officer and served presidents of both parties. I returned for service under Democratic presidents, but I have dealt on a friendly and supportive basis with political leaders on both sides of the aisle for years, and worked closely with the Republican leadership in the Congress during the Clinton years. That is the nature of fashioning a bi-partisan foreign policy in a partisan era. As for "publicly second guessing," what you call second-guessing is what other people would call debate in a democracy. I see nothing wrong with it. It is the strength of our system.

Thank you all for this fascinating exchange.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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