Richard Holbrooke’s cheap shot

The New York Times maintains a uniformity of thought on the American effort in Iraq that suppresses reports of contrary views and encourages expression of the approved point of view even in unlikely and inappropriate places. Thus Richard Holbrooke concludes his review of a new book on the Cuban missile crisis by Michael Dobbs in the Times Book Review this past Sunday with a jibe at the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq by contrast with JFK’s management of the Cuban missile crisis:

Life does not offer us a chance to play out alternative history, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the team that invaded Iraq would have attacked Cuba. And if Dobbs is right, Cuba and the Soviet Union would have fought back, perhaps launching some of the missiles already in place. One can only conclude that our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962. Like all presidents, he made his share of mistakes, but when the stakes were the highest imaginable, he rose to the occasion like no other president in the last 60 years — defining his goal clearly and then, against the demands of hawks within his administration, searching skillfully for a peaceful way to achieve it.

Holbrooke of course fails to observe that there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis if Kennedy’s pathetic performance in one foreign policy situation after another hadn’t caused Khruschev to conclude the United States was led by an inexperienced weakling who was susceptible to bullying. One can draw a direct line from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, to Kennedy’s disastrous summit with Khrushchev in Vienna, to Khrushchev’s installation of the Berlin Wall, to the Cuban missile crisis. It has taken a sustained effort by the Kennedy family and its courtiers over decades to make Kennedy’s performance on the world stage seem impressive.

Holbrooke himself served as a high diplomatic officer in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. We live with the consequences of the weakness of both the Carter and Clinton administrations in failing to protect the interests of the United States abroad. Carter of course assidulously undermined the Shah of Iran and facilitated the empowerment of Ayatollah Khomeni. He then reacted to the taking of American hostages in Tehran with a long period of hand-wringing followed by the fiasco at Desert One. The Islamic Republic of Iran now presents the most formidable foreign policy challenge to the United States.

Bill Clinton tacitly promulgated a strange foreign policy doctrine regarding the use of Ameircan power. He believed in the assertion of American power, but only if no American national interest was at stake. The first World Trade Center attack, Saddam Hussein’s assassination attempt on President Bush (41), the discovery of al Qaeda’s Operation Bojinka, the bombing of Khobar Towers, the attack on the USS Cole, all elicited the occasional indictment or empty military gesture. Nothing more.

Osama bin Laden concluded, on the basis of substantial evidence, that the United States was a “weak horse.” One can only wonder if bin Laden miscalculated with the 9/11 attacks, thinking he was still dealing with the likes of Bill Clinton, not understanding that George Bush would respond in a serious way. Bin Laden didn’t figure he’d be spending his remaining days holed up in a cave. In George Bush he found the tough customer for whom he hadn’t bargained.

With the United States standing on the verge of victory in Iraq, Holbrooke continues to portray our efforts as a disaster akin to the onset of World War I. In August 2006, he invoked “The Guns of August” to berate Bush, celebrating “13 days of brilliant diplomacy” by JFK in the Cuban missile crisis. His effusion in the Times Book Review this past Sunday is more of the same, larded with the standard Democratic talking point on Iraq. What is happening here?

It must be very strange to be Richard Holbrooke. He has positioned himself to assume what he believes is his rightful place as the Secretary of State for putative Democratic presidents, first for Al Gore and most recently for Hillary Clinton. This time Holbrooke miscalculated in placing his chips on Clinton. With President Obama on the horizon, dedicated to presenting himself as the next JFK, Holbrooke makes his move.

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