One of America’s most renowned diplomats, Richard Holbrooke was widely seen as the likely secretary of state for the last two US Democratic presidential candidates. He tells Taimur Ahmad what he would have done differently

GLOBAL AGENDA What are the main foreign policy challenges currently facing the United States? And where do you think the second George W Bush administration should concentrate its foreign policy efforts?

Richard Holbrooke The challenges are quite obvious. The number one problem for the United States right now has got to be how to deal with Iraq. But beyond that we have a vast array of issues: how do you reverse the decline in American prestige, popularity and support in many parts of the world? How do you deal with the breakdown in the dialogue between the United States and the Islamic world? How do we win the war against AIDS?

We’re fighting it, but we’re not winning it. We’re losing it because the numbers are increasing. How do we get US-Chinese relations right? What do we do about Africa, beyond HIV/AIDS? The US is a global nation, it has global interests and it’s involved globally. We need to do better.

GA What would constitute failure in Iraq?

RH Failure? You’ll know failure if you see it. Let us hope we never have to see it. There won’t be any question about it, if it’s a failure. I don’t need to waste a lot of your time defining specific aspects to that because they’re obvious.

GA But what would be the most severe consequences of such failure on the region, and the rest of the world?

RH That depends on how the failure is defined. If the US leaves Iraq in a way which appears to be a withdrawal under pressure of insurgents, it will only encourage further aggressiveness by the enemy that is fighting the United States. Now I need to distinguish here between two different enemies we’re fighting simultaneously in Iraq. One is comprised of Sunni insurgents who want to restore Sunni power, which disappeared when Saddam Hussein was removed from power. The Sunnis had dominated Iraqi politics for 400 years under the Ottomans and the British, and up until recently. Some people are fighting to regain power, not necessarily for Saddam but for Sunnis. They’re afraid that the Shiite majority will finally gain control. The second group is al-Qaeda and its allies. The first group is seeking power in Iraq. The second group is seeking to kill Americans and attack American and western civilization.

GA Do you think at this stage a more multilateral approach would be more likely than coalition efforts so far to bring security to Iraq?

RH Obviously, a multilateral approach would have done better. We should have had more countries in it, and we should have shared the burden. We should have brought the UN into a leadership role earlier. But two things worked against that from early on.

First was that American policy subordinated the UN, and the second was the horrible tragedy of August 2003, which took the UN’s top leadership – including their best person in the world, Sergio Vieira de Mello – to their deaths.

GA Do you think the UN can now meaningfully help bring security to the country?

RH No, I don’t think so. The UN is regarded by our enemies as a tool of American foreign policy – ironically – even while it’s regarded by conservatives in the US as undermining American national security. The UN is everybody’s favourite whipping boy.

GA The Shia establishment in Iraq has by far the broadest popular support. What does the prospect of a democratically elected religious establishment mean for the future of Iraq? And how do you think the US is likely to view any future government that’s effectively led by Shia clerics?

RH It’s an excellent question, and I honestly can’t answer it because it’s not clear what a Shia dominated government would mean. In Iran, it had catastrophic consequences for freedom and democracy. Would the same thing happen in Iraq? I don’t know. But the big question to me is whether the Sunnis accept a Shia controlled country.

The Kurds and the Shias would cut a deal with each other: “you stick to your area, we’ll stick to ours”. The Sunnis in the middle, having lost power after 400 years of domination, how would they react? They’re the ones leading the home-grown part of the insurgency, in tactical alliance with al-Qaeda.

GA The US strategy to restructure the Middle East is likely to remain an essential feature of US foreign policy over the next four years. There’s even a chance it might be pursued at a more rapid pace. Is this strategy desirable, and can it be effective?

RH It’s a nice objective. I’m always in favour of seeking democracy. But the administration’s idea that you can begin pushing democracy in the Middle East by starting in Iraq betrays a breathtaking lack of historical knowledge.

There are countries in the Middle East where you might be able to encourage democracy, including in some of the more democratic monarchies, such as Morocco and Jordan. But in Iraq, the conditions for democracy are very remote because of the depth of the tribal, ethnic and religious animosities.

Any reading of the history of Iraq since 1920 shows that – from Gertrude Bell, who created modern Iraq, to Winston Churchill’s failure there, what Churchill himself called “these thankless deserts”.

Either the US administration appears completely oblivious to this history, or they thought that history was irrelevant. Whatever the case, it was a terrible mistake.

GA Do you think this is a realization that’s beginning to dawn on the current US administration?

RH You’d have to ask them.

GA What’s your reading of it?

RH I’m not into trying to read their minds.

GA Supposing this awareness fails to take hold, do you think pursuing this strategy for the entire Middle East – with what you consider to be an apparent lack of concern for the region’s history – is dangerous? And if so, where might it be most dangerous going forward?

RH The occupation period under ambassador Paul Bremer was an unusual catastrophe in American foreign policy – one of the greatest failures in American diplomacy. All the more tragic because it followed a brilliantly executed military plan.

Bremer has blamed the failure on the lack of adequate forces for the post-war days. The truth is that neither Bremer nor the Pentagon foresaw the fact that the war would continue. There was no end. The Pentagon violated its own deeply held philosophy that you never go in without sufficient force if you get into trouble. That’s basic military doctrine: always go in with a backup force. But they went in without sufficient forces. Every military man knows they violated their own principles, apparently because secretary [of defence] Donald Rumsfeld insisted on a light attack.

Whatever the reasons, a combination of insufficient forces and political incompetence during the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] period left the US in a terrible position when the handover took place in June of 2004. And as a result of that, the government, when it was finally established, started off at a tremendous disadvantage.

I think that ambassador John Negroponte has done a tremendous job of putting the Iraqis forward, while keeping his own profile low, in contrast to the publicity-seeking of Bremer. But the dilemma remains nonetheless. Here’s the dilemma in a nutshell: the Iraqi government needs to stand on its own two feet in order to be credible, but it can’t survive without American security forces.

In 1922, the British put Faisal on the throne. Faisal had never set foot in Iraq before he became king. Ayad Allawi had been in exile, before becoming prime minister. Faisal needed the British, and he let them organize his popular support; they took him to Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and Falluja to get support. But Faisal then pushed the British away in order to give himself credibility, and yet he couldn’t throw the British out because he couldn’t survive without them.

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same situation we now face with Allawi. Now there are many differences, the most important of which is the election. But whoever wins, the US is going to have to help that government, unless that government, in turn, asks the US to leave, which would, of course, create a different situation.

GA Do you think stepping up the threat of US military intervention in Iran is desirable?

RH We don’t have enough troops in Iraq right now. We’re withdrawing a quarter of our troops from Korea, in the middle of negotiations with a dangerous country, North Korea, that really has weapons of mass destruction. We’ve just withdrawn our last 1,000 troops from Bosnia. We’re extending the duty of people in the reserves and the national guard, and we’re even calling up people in their 50s.

Under those circumstances it is just not possible for us to contemplate additional military action, even by air, because air strikes may require ground follow-up. That was Lyndon Johnson’s eternal regret in 1965 in Vietnam.

GA We’re seeing many states around the world forging military and economic alliances to counterbalance US power in both those spheres. How do you think the rest of the world should respond to long-term US military and economic dominance?

RH I don’t know how to begin to answer the question. You’re asking me to answer how the rest of the world should respond. It depends on how America exercises its dominance.

If we exercise it wisely, as leadership rather than unilateral imposition, they should – and I hope the majority would – see it in their interest [to work with America]. But that requires wisdom and generosity and a readiness to compromise. You can’t just say “the United States simply says this is how we’re going to do it, take it or leave it, my way or the highway”. It won’t work. Countries will resist. That was the fundamental flaw of the last four years. It was so big that it’s hard to imagine how that mistake could have been made. But it was made, and now all we can do is hope that the second Bush administration will do better.

GA Is there any reason to believe that US power and influence in the world today are in decline?

RH Well, militarily, the US still retains the power to project itself onto any acre of land on the face of the earth. But that’s not sufficient. Firepower has limits, and its limits are very clear, as we’ve seen time and time again over the last four years.

It’s not a question of the US being in decline. The US is under assault, and I’m utterly and totally confident that the United States, with its energy, and its creativity, and its human resources and technology, will prevail. But prevail does not mean control everything on the face of the earth.

Richard Holbrooke
Vice-chairman, perseus LLC
1962-66 Diplomatic service in Vietnam
1966 Member of White House Vietnam staff of president Lyndon Johnson
1967-69 Member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam
1972-76 Managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine
1976 Coordinates national security affairs for the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign
1977-81 Assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs
1981 Consultant, Lehman Brothers, eventually becoming managing director
1992 Chairman and principal author of the bipartisan Commission on Government and Renewal 1993-94 US ambassador to Germany
1994-96 Assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian Affairs
1995 Leads the American team negotiating the Bosnian Peace Accords at Dayton
1997 President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Cyprus
1998-2001 US ambassador to the United Nations
Since 2001 Counsellor at the Council on Foreign Relations and chairman of its Terrorism Task Force