- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
It has just been reported that Amb. Richard Holbrooke — special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of FP’s earliest editors, has passed away after emergency surgery for a torn aorta. He was 69.
Holbrooke’s untimely death comes as a particular shock to those of us at FP, who saw him only two weeks ago when he was honored at our Global Thinkers Gala and was at his pugnacious best. (Here’s a video of his speech at the event, in which he called his years at FP "among the most important in my life and my career."
Holbrooke was a giant of American policy over the last half century, trouble-shooting in conflicts from Vietnam, to the Balkans, (about which he wrote his classic first-person account, To End a War) to Afghanistan. (He’s probably one of the few State Department figures to play a starring role in both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks documents.)
But while often seen as the consummate Foggy Bottom insider, Holbrooke was never sentimental about the business of American foreign policy. His first piece from the very first issue of Foreign Policy in 1970 takes on the bloated U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy, or has he called it, "the machine that fails." In Holbrooke’s view, the proliferation of massively-staffed agencies accountable for different aspects of U.S. foreign policy had made the entirely apparatus dangerously unwieldy. But despite his skepticism, the piece also features a rousing defense of the ideals of the State department and American diplomats:
I do not pretend to have the definitive answers. But my own conclusion is that a major reduction in the number of organizations and chains of command must take place, or else the bureaucratic chaos will get worse, and more bypass mechanisms will be created, and more layers will spring up, and…
If this vital premise is accepted, then institutional change could follow one of several possible paths. ideally, the organization that is called the State Department could become the central point of the foreign affairs administrative structure. The balance of powers in our government is such that it would be a mistake to put central coordinating power into the hands of the NSC staff, which is immune to the legitimate and constitutional desire of Congress to play a role in policy through the appropriations process and through the confirmation of Presidential appointees, and hearings on policy. And much evidence piled up over the last decade shows that overreliance on a White House staff isolates the President from the great departments of government and leads to costly mistakes.
But only an ideal State Department, not today’s State Department, could play the central role. Only a reformed organization, residing perhaps on the same physical shell but altogether different in internal structure, can do what must be done. Here, indeed, is where the greatest reforms, the most drastic surgery, must occur. More political appointees are surely needed, men on whom the President and the Secretary can rely; fewer FSO’s on short Washington tours; a larger number of permanent Washington-based officials who understand both the Washington bureaucratic game and their regional specialty; much closer relationships between the other agencies (in whatever form they survive) and State; more authority to the desk officers and country directors, who should be aware of everything affecting U.S. relations with their country; and fewer layers between the desk officer and the Secretary of State.
In his description of the ideal combination of savvy Washington player and international specialist, Holbrooke might have been describing the role that he himself would play over the next four decades. As both a practitioner and critic of U.S. foreign policy-making he was unsurpassed. And in these trying times for American diplomacy, he will be missed