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There is no reason to pull any punches in regard to Richard C. Holbrooke, the long-time US diplomat who died Monday night in Washington. He was a bully and a liar for the most rapacious and militaristic power in the world, a man steeped in the commission and cover-up of bloody crimes. He devoted his life to defending the worldwide interests of American corporations and banks, and became personally wealthy as a consequence.|
The obligatory tributes pouring in from the US political establishment—from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, the editorial page of the Washington Post, and politicians and pundits galore—amount to a self-indictment of the character and “morality” of these gentlemen and ladies. As for the bouquets from foreign leaders, from British Prime Minister David Cameron to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, it is a mafia tradition to send flowers to the funeral.
As far as the Washington press corps was concerned, Holbrooke’s was a death in the family. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen blogged about a recent encounter with this “extraordinary man,” when Holbrooke visited Cohen’s beachfront home last summer. Judy Woodruff of PBS and Al Hunt of Bloomberg News visited the dying envoy in the hospital.
The gushing by the press reveals an important feature of American political life—the incestuous relations between Wall Street, the Washington power structure and leading circles in the media, cemented by vast sums of money. Holbrooke personified this relationship, shuttling back and forth between investment banking and the State Department, squiring Diane Sawyer about Manhattan and then marrying Kati Marton, the ex-wife of ABC anchorman Peter Jennings.
While the obituaries and tributes gave first place to Holbrooke’s role in the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, where he brokered the Dayton Accord that ended open warfare in Bosnia, this was only one of the many episodes in a career that spanned nearly 50 years, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
A junior foreign service officer in the early stages of the Vietnam War, Holbrooke rose rapidly to leading positions, and served in every Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy’s. He had close connections with the Republican foreign policy establishment as well, including Henry Kissinger and Holbrooke’s colleague from Vietnam, John Negroponte, US ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush.
Born in 1941 of Jewish parents who emigrated from Germany and Poland in the 1930s, Holbrooke was a high school classmate and friend of David Rusk, the son of Kennedy’s hawkish secretary of state, Dean Rusk. This connection led him to join the Foreign Service after graduating from Brown University. He took a year of foreign language instruction, and went to Vietnam.
Mass murder in Vietnam
Holbrooke was stationed in the Mekong Delta as a 22-year-old civil affairs officer in charge of an entire province with 600,000 people. He was one of the cabal of young, energetic and ruthless operatives, dubbed “The Best and the Brightest” by author David Halberstam, who spearheaded the American effort in Vietnam.
His initial position was as a field officer for the US Agency for International Development, which placed US officials as overlords in Vietnamese villages and towns, supervising the operations of the stooge government of South Vietnam. The US had established this puppet regime in an effort to thwart the Vietnamese nationalist movement that defeated the French colonialists in the first Vietnam War, between 1946 and 1954.
By 1959, local nationalist guerrillas in the south had launched a guerrilla war, seeking to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem and reunify the country under the leadership of the Viet Minh, which ruled the northern half of the country. As the fighting escalated, US troops were deployed, initially as “advisers.”
Holbrooke was an operative in the protracted effort to break the connection between the insurgents and the peasantry, which included, in a long series of failures, locating US officials in villages (the Pacification Program), removing the population from their villages to larger aggregations (“strategic hamlets”), and the systematic assassination of suspected NLF cadres (the Phoenix Program).
More than 20,000 Vietnamese were tortured and executed in the last-named campaign, one of the great unpunished war crimes of the twentieth century. Those educated in this school for mass murder included a who’s who of later top US diplomats, most of them in Democratic administrations. These included Holbrooke, Negroponte, future Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, future Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Frank Wisner, a future top State Department official in both the Carter and Clinton administrations, and Peter Tarnoff, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state.
Holbrooke moved up quickly from field officer to become a staff assistant at the US Embassy in Saigon, and then in 1966 joined the White House staff of President Lyndon Johnson, working for Robert Komer, known as “Blowtorch Bob” for his role as chief of the Phoenix Program. Later he moved to the State Department, working as part of the team that drafted the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of US-Vietnam relations leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg.
After Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, Holbrooke served briefly on the State Department delegation at the Paris Peace Talks, then as head of Peace Corps operations in Morocco, before beginning his second career in investment banking. He worked for Credit Suisse, eventually becoming a vice president. From then on, he alternated between the State Department and Wall Street, depending on the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.
Holbrooke and Pol Pot
The press obituaries are silent about the next stage in Holbrooke’s diplomatic career, his four years in the Carter administration, from 1977 to 1981, as assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs. In that capacity, he was the point man for US foreign policy in a region in turmoil after the shattering defeat of the United States in Vietnam, which had weakened pro-US dictatorships in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia.
In each of these countries, the Carter administration pursued a policy of propping up the regimes while urging concessions to popular aspirations in order to fend off further revolts. In pursuit of this policy, Washington cultivated “dissident” elements within the local ruling elite, like Benigno Aquino in the Philippines and Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, in some cases intervening to block their execution. The fruits of this policy included agreements negotiated by Holbrooke to extend US basing rights in the Philippines for another five years and to continue US aid to the Indonesian military despite ongoing atrocities in East Timor.