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Tilting at Windmills

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November 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HOLBROOKE AND IRAQ....As he was leaving his job of UN ambassador in 2001, Richard Holbrooke said of Saddam Hussein, "His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times. And the next Administration will have to deal with this problem, which we inherited from our predecessors and they now inherit from us."

Matt Yglesias quotes this as evidence that Holbrooke was an Iraq hawk from way back, and concludes, "I'm not very excited by the prospect of Hillary Clinton making him Secretary of State."

But this is crazy. I don't hold any special brief for Holbrooke, but it's not like he was obsessed with Iraq and decided to deliver some big warmongering speech in January 2001 about the evils of Saddam Hussein. All that happened is that he held a final press Q&A before leaving office and gave his thoughts on a couple dozen different subjects. The first question he was asked happened to be about Iraq, and he responded with pretty much the standard State Department view of the time.

What's more, it was hardly a controversial view. Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug, he did have a history of developing WMD programs and hiding them from inspectors, and his "willingness to export his problems," as Holbrooke delicately put it, was pretty indisputable. It's one thing to argue that Holbrooke's later support for the Iraq war makes him unacceptably hawkish — a view that I understand even if I don't share it — but a routine and perfectly defensible denunciation of Saddam Hussein in 2001 really doesn't seem like it qualifies.

Kevin Drum 9:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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Kevin and Hillary sitting in a tree

Posted by: jimmy on November 19, 2007 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

Look, Holbrooke's remark nicely encapsulates what was essentially the Clinton administration's attitude on Saddam Hussein going back to 1998 when, if we recall, Clinton bombed the shit out of Baghdad (and in the process destroyed a lot of Iraq's WMD capability). Al Gore made similar comments on several occasions as well. Its wholly unsurprising, as Kevin says, that Hillary would bring him into her circle.

Retrospectively, we seem to want even moderates like Holbrooke to hedge their rhetoric a bit, perhaps adding: "...and by the way, by 'deal with' I don't mean invade unilaterally and occupy indefinitely". It testifies to the extent to which the Bush years have irreparably damaged the discourse of politics and foreign relations. From now on, every America pol (Republicans aside) will have to parse his or her words an additional time just to keep from appearing to be half as batshit insane as Bush.

Posted by: jonas on November 19, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

And Kevin says: "willingness to export his problems," as Holbrooke delicately put it, was pretty indisputable.

Gee Kevin, how about some examples of Saddam's "exported problems" since you imply that Saddam "exported" problems that are "indisputable"?

I realize that Saddam wanted to flood the market with oil when Bush said there was an oil crisis after first coming to office - but the brown-outs merely were power grid manipulation, and after 9/11 Saddam recommend that OPEC up the price of oil - which OPEC is always willing to do anyways.

So beside Saddam manipulating the price of oil, which of course OPEC does openly even when the world trade organization prohibits this act, what problems did Saddam export? Please try to confuse Saddam with Osama.

Saddam DIDN"T Export any of his problems.

It's like Thomas Friedman said, we invade Iraq because we could - Saddam was a sitting duck, with no WMD and Bush knew it after Hans Blix came back to the UN and said all of Colin Powell's site were rubbish. This prompted Bush to trash Blix and go to war anyway.

Posted by: Me_again on November 19, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, please, get off of this Hillary kick that you've been going through.

I consider myself to be an FDR Liberal, as do you, so I see you as a intellectual father figure (I am in college).

I know you are an idealist. I know that you are also decent, and forward looking. Hillary would represent none of these traits. Her idealism would involve throwing enough red-meat to the base as is needed to keep them happy; her decency would be lost in a quest for self-preservation in the sauna-room temperature that would follow her election; and America would lose valuable time needed to fundamentally change course on the direction Washington has it set on.

Please re-consider.

Posted by: James Delinis on November 19, 2007 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

As I was preparing a comment on Hillary and Holbrooke in response to Kevin's 2:09 PM post, I googled Holbrooke and Iraq and found out that Kevin had just written this post on Holbrooke. Google had it within minutes, it seems. Pretty amazing.

Anyway, Holbrooke is indeed a hawk and believes in using US force more than it has been used. He is Hillary's advisor and her likely secretary of state, so what he says is important. In 2006, he said about her:

“She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband,” says Richard Holbrooke, the former envoy for Bill Clinton. “Hillary Clinton is a classic national-security Democrat. She is better at framing national-security issues for the current era than her husband was at a common point in his career.”

Note that he associates "more assertive and willing to use force" with "better at framing national-security issues for the current era" -- clearly neocon talk. Holbrooke, like Albright, were and are neocons. They criticized Bush on the tactics, but they are birds of a feather with Wolfowitz and Cheney.

Posted by: JS on November 19, 2007 at 9:54 PM | PERMALINK

er, that should say: Please try NOT to confuse Saddam with Osama.

AND BTW, if indeed Clinton wants Holbrooke for her Secretary of State, I say that his is a fair indication that the Clinton's are still in lockstep with Bush on the war in Iraq, and that she will bring no policy changes.

Posted by: Me_again on November 19, 2007 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Dealing" must equal "invading their country, occupying forever, spending trillions."

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 19, 2007 at 9:57 PM | PERMALINK

Matt was an Iraq War hawk back then himself, and this colors a lot of his ideas as he tries to demonstrate a) that everyone was an Iraq War hawk, and b) that there is no way on earth that the Iraq War could ever have had a better outcome then where we are today (his incompetence dodge.)

All of this serves to make his own mistake a little less wrong.

Posted by: jerry on November 19, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

The Iranians and Kuwaitis will be happy to describe how Saddam "exported" his problems.

Posted by: Tom S on November 19, 2007 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke's edges can be pretty rough, but he managed to advance the ball in the Balkans, which I had thought up til then was pretty much impossible.

Posted by: Jim on November 19, 2007 at 10:11 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I'd like to see some more of the "export his problems." Attacking a neighbor with the connivance of the US (Iran) or laying claim to territory that might ought to have been Iraq's anyway is not what is meant by "export his problems." That phrase smacks of Yellow Cake and mysterious assignations in Prague. Evidence, Charelmont. Hilary is a warmonger and she's surrounded by the warmongering crowd and their cheerleaders. Fuck Holbrooke.

Posted by: STEVEinSC on November 19, 2007 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

Bill Clinton's cruise missile attacks in 1998 , for which he was skewered by conservatives for "wagging the dog", effectively neutered Hussein, as we know now. Prior to that, the no-fly-zones and economic sanctions degraded any offensive military capability that survived Gulf War I. Conservatives were wrong then and they were wrong again in 2002 when Dick Cheney said, "there is no doubt Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction". Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why would any sensible person allow people of this ilk and that have been this wrong this often to ever govern this great country again?

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on November 19, 2007 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke's claim, in the same passage, that Saddam was "a danger to the region and a danger to the world" was a gross overstatement. Mainly, he was a danger to his own people. If Saddam was such a threat, why was there no clamor, outside the U.S, to do something drastic about him? Why were Europe, not to mention Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, etc, not demanding action? The clamor came from the U.S. right, abetted by centrist "liberal internationalists" who apparently felt compelled to compete with the neo-cons in "toughness."

Posted by: Tony Greco on November 19, 2007 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone willing to casually use the phrase "clear and present danger" like that is, well, clearly dangerous in times like these.

You have here exactly why I'm not thrilled at the thought of a Hillary presidency. Clinton took over from the good Bush, and his foreign policy was essentially static. He did some things, like in the Balkans, that were risky, but other than that, he pretty much stood still: Iraq remained under sanctions, no progress in Palestine, and so on. Holbrooke's description of Iraq as an "inherited" problem they were passing on captures it perfectly. At the time, it made sense -- why take huge political risks when the country was doing so well? Then came this Bush, who has unleashed and legitimized warmongering attitudes we haven't seen in this country in a long time. Those attitudes aren't going to go away; all you have to do is listen to the Republican candidates to know that it's become part of their "DNA," like reducing taxes on the wealthy or having gay sex in public restrooms.

Because Clinton had done nothing in the Middle East, the table was set for what we have now. Tough, "sensible" rhetoric like what we have above from people like Holbrooke, from Clinton himself for that matter, made it very easy for this Bush to take it one step further. He did: Iraq. We now have a similar situation to what Clinton "inherited" from the elder Bush: Iran. What is cautious Hillary, and her team of Clintonites, going to do different from what her husband did? If a Republican "inherits" status quo Iran from a Hillary presidency, how long will it be before we're at war again? -- and that's if Hillary doesn't do it herself ("Invade and bomb with Hillary and Rahm" is how Novak described it).

We need something different, something fresh, because status quo foreign policy from the left, at a time when the right is run by radicals, isn't going to change a thing, other than the timetable.

Posted by: Martin Gale on November 19, 2007 at 11:48 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, would you guys please remember (or research) who you're talking about? Holbrooke talks tough, but he's probably the most effective and toughest negotiator this country (or any country) has had in a very long time.

And anybody who thinks Hillary is going to go war adventuring in the Middle East has been drinking too damn much Kool-Aid.

If you're smart and there's a good chance you may be president fairly soon, you do not even hint that you might take anything "off the table." There does, there really does, need to be a credible threat of force in some situations in order to achieve negotiated solutions.

I'm sorry, but it is absolutely necessary for the U.S. to genuinely be perceived as being tough. Hillary would be the biggest (and most dangerous) fool on the planet to go around singing kumbaya and yapping away about direct negotiations right off the bat with people like Ahmadinejad et al, as Obama has.

I'm still planning on voting for Edwards, but the more of this nonsense I read from insufficiently read folks on the left I would normally agree with, the madder I get about the nonsense being talked about Hillary.

And by the way, what is this idiocy about how Bill Clinton "did nothing" about Palestine? Good grief. Are memories really that short, or that malleable?

Posted by: gyrfalcon on November 20, 2007 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with Matt that one of our (the blogosphere's ) major concerns should be purging the O'Hanlons of the world from the seats of power, including the Brookings Institution. And I applaud his noble fight.

I'm just not sure that Holbrooke is one of the targets. As a long time observer, I think he's pretty good. He's been arguing against the Bushies for a long time (although perhaps not against the war when it meant most). He's no O'Hanlon, though.

Posted by: gfw on November 20, 2007 at 1:48 AM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke's real neocon hawk credentials show up in this February 2003 Washington Posst article in which he is fretting that Bush is being too cautious by asking for a second UN resolution, and so risking a missed opportunity to invade Iraq. Holbrooke, in other words, is more hawkish than Bush here.

Here he criticizes Bush for going to the UN a second time:

After the masterful diplomacy by Secretary of State Colin Powell that produced Security Council Resolution 1441, the administration, urged on by Prime Minister Tony Blair, made the decision to seek a second resolution that would at least implicitly authorize the use of force.... But something akin to a train wreck is now approaching, because that second resolution is unlikely to be achievable...

And here he boasts that Clinton, when he bombed Serbia, ignored the UN altogether:

In a roughly similar situation, in 1999, the Clinton administration and our NATO allies decided to bomb Serbia (for 77 days) without even seeking U.N. approval, after it became clear that Russia would veto any proposal. This contrast with the supposedly muscular Bush administration is especially odd when one considers that Saddam Hussein is far worse than Slobodan Milosevic...

So there you have it folks. Bush in February 2003 was proceeding to war too slowly and too cautiously for Mr. Holbrooke, who is likely to be Hillary's secretary of state.

Posted by: JS on November 20, 2007 at 2:03 AM | PERMALINK

The bigger concern about Holbrooke should be that he is a pompous, arrogant a**hole. Post-Bush American foreign policy needs a better secstate than Holbrooke.

Posted by: huh? on November 20, 2007 at 6:55 AM | PERMALINK

My problem with Holbrooke's quote is his use of the term "clear and present danger". Saddam was a danger to his neighbors, certainly, but to suggest he was ever a serious danger to the United States is absurd. That's where war opponents, I think, part ways with liberal/centrist "hawks".

Posted by: Toast on November 20, 2007 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

Why are you guys surprised that Kevin is taking this tack? If you see his stuff from 2003, he had similar views as Holbrooke. Kevin doesn't want liberal hawks marginalized because, like Hillary and Holbrooke, he supported overthrowing Iraq.

Posted by: Mo on November 20, 2007 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke wouldn't lie to get us into a war, nor would he roll over and let a Vice President push him into a war.

Nor would be shoe shopping and ineffectual at the job of Secretary of State.

Regardless of what anyone thinks, ANY Democrat appointing ANYONE to run a Federal Agency is going to be ten times better than the swirling shit storm of incompetence we have today.

Posted by: Pale Rider on November 20, 2007 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke is not a NeoConservative, that's just plain silly and a worthless smear. The Primary difference is that Holbrooke and his fellow travelers see force as tool to forge long term political solutions like they are trying in the Balkans. That's an anathema to the Cheney's and Perle's of the world. In fact, they despise Holbrooke and his crowd more than they despise the dirty hippies. The Neocons are, in a sense, Utopians who see the compromise and pragmatism endemic to Holbrooke's approach as cowardly. Obama and Edwards actually share a considerable amount of the Holbrooke worldview. It's a big step forward in the right direction if Holbrookes view becomes the norm again. It's not the best, but I'll take it.

Posted by: Hebisner on November 20, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Saddam was dangerous because he was extremely ambitious -- he wanted to conquer the whole Gulf region, taking over the majority of the world's oil and setting Iraq up as a great power -- and was also quite irrational, believing that History had appointed him to this task and so was sure to succeed in his wars. If he had gotten nuclear weapons, there is no telling what he might have done. And the sanctions regime was rapidly breaking down, so it was virtually inevitable that at some point he would have been free to go back to work full-speed on his WMD programs. The Clinton and Holbroke position was simply facing the reality of the situation.

Posted by: Les Brunswick on November 20, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Based upon performances in the latest democratic debate I think Senator Biden would make a fine Secretary of State.

Tom S stated above that "The Iranians and Kuwaitis will be happy to describe how Saddam "exported" his problems."

I hope you understand, Tom S, thatIraq's war with Iran was actively encouraged by the USA which provided intelligence to assist Iraq in targeting its attacks on Iran.

Remember also that Reagan sent Rumsfeld and Cheney to Iraq to reopen relations and then provided Iraq with biological and chemical weapons. Iraq's plan to invade Kuwait was communicated to then Ambassador April Glaspie who indicated the USA would not interfere. There is evidence that Kuwait was pumping Iraqi oil.

Posted by: Chris Brown on November 20, 2007 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK
There does, there really does, need to be a credible threat of force in some situations in order to achieve negotiated solutions.

Yes, there does, and it was ostensably this reasoning that led Hillary to vote for the Iraq war, vote for Kyl-Lieberman, and so on.

Anyway, this is a straw man. No one is arguing you don't need a "credible threat of force"; the argument is that Hillary (and Bill) have a demonstrated track record of vigorously maintaining a "credible use of force," without achieving offsetting diplomatic gains, which leads, inevitably, to the use of that force. This is particularly true in a world where the Republicans are what they are. If you're going to adopt the pose of an exasperated wise person, be wise enough to argue against what people said, rather than against what you wish they'd said.

And by the way, what is this idiocy about how Bill Clinton "did nothing" about Palestine? Good grief. Are memories really that short, or that malleable?

Posted by: gyrfalcon on November 20, 2007 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

I notice you left out the part about what he actually did, so allow me to correct for that oversight, with a nutshell description of Bill's achievements in that area. He went in to office with the same situation in place as when he left. That's either doing nothing or, to be most exact, getting nothing done.

Posted by: Martin Gale on November 20, 2007 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

Holbrooke, Albright, et. al. --the Clinton foreign policy team were/are so-called liberal hawks. Though what makes the Liberal I'm not quite sure. Enough prodding from Boeing Aircraft would have gotten into them a mid-east war sooner of later. Bill, Hillary are Boeing Democrats in the mold of the late senator from Boeing,Henry Jackson, the early neo-con.

We need to stop threatening small, weak impoverished countries that are no threat to us. Really, was Iraq or Iran ever going to drop a bomb on US soil? Was Nicaragua or Venezuela ever going to invade us? All of them bogus threats used by liberal and not so liberal hawks to make us fearful and buy more bombs, jets and missiles systems.

Wise up Americans, stop being taking in by bogus war saps.

Posted by: Dr WU-the last of the big time thinkers on November 20, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

I think GFW made a good point about the US needing to project toughness in foreign policy. That is generally true and often overlooked by the left. However, this is a time in history when we have an over-abundance of toughness. If we are not careful toughness will lead us to stick around in Iraq for decades and get involved in other imperial wars in the area. This is a time when we need a president who will redefine what toughness means, and I don't think Hillary has the intent or political courage to do that. This is a time when caution and reaching out need to take precedence over toughness.

Posted by: nathan on November 20, 2007 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK



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