In the last few months of 2010, the United States has intensified its air campaign over the Pashtun tribal lands that lie astride a mountainous and poorly defined Afghan-Pakistan border. In the course of 102 days, 58 strikes against Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives (as well as a high but unknown number of innocents) were carried out by the Air Force and CIA’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Jihadists and civilians alike are incinerated by Hellfire missiles without much notice from the media, and American soldiers and marines who fall in combat can expect little better. Yet one death connected to the war in the Hindu Kush certainly did garner attention in Washington: that of Richard Holbrooke, the Department of State’s Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke, responsible for diplomatic coordination of the ongoing conflict, died from a ruptured aorta on December 13th. Since then the press and the Obama administration have unleashed torrents of praise for this “giant of American diplomacy”. But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the man has been the ever-expanding role of killer drones in the execution of policy, as reported from Pakistan’s northwest. Despite his earlier experiences in Vietnam, Richard Holbrooke came to believe firmly in redemption through coercive air power. In bombing there is progress; in bombing shall we find peace.
In light of his missionary zeal, Holbrooke’s achievements and background merit examination. He was, as Balkans scholar Srdja Trifkovic has noted, a prime architect and in some ways the personification of U.S. interventionism. Aside from his high status at Foggy Bottom, Holbrooke represented a one-man nexus of government, Wall Street interests and NGO influence. In this capacity he was for decades an effective and energetic enforcer of the Pax Americana. Where U.S. geopolitical designs intersected with points of crisis in Eurasia, Holbrooke would be sent to exploit the situation. His negotiating methods consisted mainly in the presentation of ultimatums and corresponding punishments for noncompliance.
The 1990s would be the decade in which Holbrooke would gain his fame. As the former Yugoslavia unraveled in ethnic and religious conflict, the U.S. looked to assert its dominance in the region. That decade’s Balkan wars were a brutal and complex affair, but to Holbrooke and the Clinton administration it was all quite simple: the Serbs must be cut down to size. Here, too, was the perfect opportunity wield American power for the sake of human progress. In the mountain valleys of southeastern Europe, history’s ghosts could only be exorcised with a resounding show of force. As a prophet from Washington, Holbrooke would light the path to the Open Society with laser-guided munitions.
The roles in this unfolding morality play were already assigned: Bosnian Muslims virtuous and victimized, more or less tolerable Croats, and villainous, even savage Serbs. The fact that Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic and his Croat counterpart Franjo Tudjman were gangsters in the same mold as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic did not register with U.S. foreign policy elites- the script was written, and it had to be followed. Holbrooke’s directorship of the scenario would win him accolades in the West, with the 1995 Dayton Accords his handiwork.
Holbrooke’s favored formula of intimidation and aerial bombardment was applied repeatedly to force Belgrade into accommodation of U.S. demands, first to create the Bosnian state and then to detach Kosovo from Serbia itself in 1999. The following request to his colleague Strobe Talbott mid-decade illuminates Holbrooke, lover and liberator of mankind, in all of his belligerent self-righteousness:
This is a critical moment for us personally, our responsibility to the nation and the right thing to do. Give us bombs for diplomacy. Give us bombs for peace. We need the bombing to make our diplomacy effective. And don’t hold back.
It would be a mistake to view such a plea as merely another example of Clausewitz’s dictum on war as an instrument of policy, for it is rooted in a much more expansive and far-reaching vision. The man raised Quaker by his atheist Jewish parents developed an unshakeable faith in redemptive violence, the revolutionary destruction necessary to fashion a new world. In this he was a kindred soul to 19th century radicals and neoconservative contemporaries like Paul Wolfowitz. Holbrooke’s passionate wish for bombs was granted, U.S. influence in Europe justified, and new Muslim statelets established in the Balkans.
Holbrooke would often explain his policy ambitions in the context of family history and ethnicity. His mother had fled from Germany in the early 1930s, his father from Warsaw. An avowed secularist, like many other such men Holbrooke still took pride in his Jewish heritage and evidently maintained a strong emotional bond with Israel and Zionism. And while he may have been born in New York City, at heart he identified with the alienated refugee.
At the media’s insistence, we are supposed to associate the departed Holbrooke first and foremost with compassion and hail him for throwing his name behind numerous humanitarian initiatives. Yet public and fashionable displays of virtue do not fully portray the spirit of Holbrooke’s career and his greater mission. Behind the moralistic rhetoric and celebrity-worthy aid projects was a clear streak of animosity toward the traditional culture and peoples of Europe.
What drove Holbrooke as much as sympathy for certain designated classes of victims was a deep hostility to Christianity, most particularly Orthodox civilization, which has in a significant measure remained outside the American orbit. Thus he was not only active but enthusiastic in ensuring that Serbia would be pulverized by a NATO air campaign and stripped of Kosovo province. Today Albanian-ruled Kosovo is Europe’s major conduit for Afghan heroin and a center for illegal organ transfers, in addition to hosting one of the largest U.S. military bases on the Continent. Holbrooke also never tired of recommending Turkish membership in the EU and was an active sponsor of Islamic power in Europe.
If a policy was likely to antagonize Russia, Holbrooke was likely to support it. From NATO expansion, color revolutions and “civil society” programs to tensions over South Ossetia, he consistently pushed for advantage on Moscow’s periphery. Defiant Serbs and the nationalist retrogrades in the Kremlin had to know their place in the Brave New World, and so were to be punished and humiliated until they embraced their subjugation. If Russia had at any moment lacked the means to defend herself, Holbrooke would doubtless have been ready to implement the Kosovo template deep in the Caucasus.
The entire style and substance of Holbrooke’s work can be distilled to one quality: not compassion, but aggression. The ancient imperial practice of divide-and-rule was only enhanced by the discourse of “human rights” ideology, and CNN clips of refugees made for a convenient excuse to launch cruise missiles against civilian infrastructure. Where, then, was Holbrooke’s legendary compassion for Serbs “ethnically cleansed” in Krajina and Kosovo, or those kidnapped, executed and exploited as organ donors on the black market? What of the victims of NATO Operation Allied Force? They deserve not the slightest memory; neither, for that matter, do Christians from the Levant to East Timor. Holbrooke had little time to care about the massacres of Timorese in the late 1970s, as he was obtaining counterinsurgency aircraft for their Indonesian killers. This was not peacemaking, but predation.
Russia’s theorist of cultural renewal Ivan Ilyin described the Bolsheviks who seized power in his home country as internationalist adventurers. Among the self-styled statesmen of our era, Richard Holbrooke exhibited the stamp of ruthless messianism characteristic of a Lenin or Trotsky. He, too, was an internationalist adventurer and the spiritual heir to an earlier generation of men who advanced the cause of global revolution. Holbrooke’s death in the Afghan adventure is a rather unsubtle harbinger of what’s next: like Soviet Marxism, the liberal order marches from its moment of exaltation to oblivion along familiar terrain.
Commentators have bemoaned the void in U.S. foreign policy caused by the exit of an irreplaceable diplomat. In reality there has long been an overpowering nothingness to American globalism; Holbrooke himself, the great bulldozer, embodied this phenomenon better than anyone. He rendered invaluable services to the Empire, making the world safe for both MTV and the mujahedin, Ikea and the KLA. What remains is a trail of death, the casualties inflicted to bring man closer to a brotherhood of consumption, the compost for a perfect future of liberty and equality.
Richard Holbrooke spoke these words in a 2010 interview to describe the jihadist political program, but their irony eluded him. His statement just as well exposes the long war for universal democracy:
It’s pure nihilism. They stand for absolutely nothing except destruction, and they destroy people’s lives in a random and insane way.