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Holbrooke at CAP event: Ceci n’est past un press conference

Check out the #afpakupdate hashtag on Twitter for live-tweeting about this morning’s Center for American Progress-organized event with Richard Holbrooke by myself and a number of other folks who were there, either physically or in spirit. In a further sign of the new-media era, I see that Steve Walt scooped me on the best line ...

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WASHINGTON - AUGUST 12: Richard Holbrooke (L) U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, and John Podesta (R) CEO, Center for American Progress, participate in a discussion on August 12, 2009 in Washington, DC. Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Podesta discussed the current U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Check out the #afpakupdate hashtag on Twitter for live-tweeting about this morning’s Center for American Progress-organized event with Richard Holbrooke by myself and a number of other folks who were there, either physically or in spirit. In a further sign of the new-media era, I see that Steve Walt scooped me on the best line of the event while I was walking back from the event four blocks away.

The talk was moderated by CAP President John Podesta, looking none the worse for wear after his recent stopover in North Korea, and a large panel of Holbrooke’s advisors including:

  • Deputy Special Representative Dan Feldman
  • Chief of Staff Rosemarie Pauli
  • Senior Defense Advisor Vikram Singh (Department of Defense)
  • Senior Development Advisor Beth Dunford (USAID)
  • Senior Advisor Vali Nasr
  • Spenior Advisor Jane Marriot (U.K. Foreign Office)
  • Senior Advisor Barnett Rubin
  • Senior Advisor Rina Amiri
  • Senior Treasury Advisor Ramy Shy (Department of the Treasury)
  • Special Advisor Ashley Bommer
  • Senior Development Advisor Sepideh Keyyavanshad (USAID)
  • Senior Agricultural Advisor Otto Gonzalez (Department of Agriculture)

The headline of the event is likely to be Holbrooke referring to Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity in defining success in Afghanistan: “We’ll know it when we see it” — a phrase that won’t exactly reassure critics that the United States has an achievable, or even definable, end goal in mind for Afghanistan.

Also notable was Vikram Singh’s statement about how to counter Taliban propaganda: “A lot of this hinges on making sure that our actions support our messages.” Well, yes. I can imagine how that would be helpful. That could probably apply to maintaining U.S. support for the AfPak effort as well.

There was also Holbrooke’s answer to a question about how who will determine if Afghanistan’s election is legitimate:

It ends up being the media… The truth is that all of what happens in any distant places is in the end reduced to simple headlines. If you take the three most obvious recent events: Iran, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. No one knows what actually happened there. You think you know, thanks to the media.

So we’ll know it when we see it, but we won’t actually know what we’re seeing? This is Holbrooke the post-modernist.

There’s truth to this of course, but it seems an odd thing for Holbrooke to grumble about given the lack of specific information he and his team were prepared to provide. Questions about post-election contingency plans, troop levels, and whether a “weak” Afghan state would be acceptable were all dodged. The two-minute presentations by each advisor were more conceptual explanations of their respective roles than “updates” on the progress being made.

If Holbrooke has a problem with the picture the public is getting of the mission in Afghanistan, he had a pretty big bully pulpit today to discuss his goals and tactics. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Stay tuned to the AfPak Channel for more.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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