The President-Elect indicated to me last summer that he was interested in surrounding himself with the toughest, smartest people he could find in his Administration. People who would argue with each other, who would disagree with him. This seems a wise course of action. Obama has the strength and confidence, I believe, to be able to handle a little contention–and the lack of diverse, pushy voices is, in part, what killed the Administration of George W. Bush.
Last summer, Obama told me that he’d be open to talented Republicans–people like Robert Gates, who may well be asked to remain for a time as Secretary of Defense. That would be a good thing. Gates has been excellent.
But Obama should also be open to people in his own party, people who didn’t support him for President. Which brings me to Richard Holbrooke–who is, without question, the finest diplomat in the Democratic Party, but one who supported Hillary Clinton and has been a rival of several of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers, namely Tony Lake and Susan Rice.
No one questions Holbrooke’s talent. Stories are told about his ambition and his, well, pushiness. I had the opportunity to watch Holbrooke close up during the Bosnia peace negotiations a decade ago. I spent a week on his shuttle, watching Holbrooke face down Slobodan Milosevic (who needed to be pushed)–and work, very nicely thank you, with the National Security Adviser Tony Lake, who was frequently in phone contact from Washington. Holbrooke put together a first-rate team for that effort–a team of rivals, in fact, including General Wes Clark, Don Kerrick (of the National Security Council, who should be getting consideration for National Security Adviser now) and Christopher Hill of the State Department. It was an incredible show, one of the few clear-cut diplomatic triumphs of the Clinton Administration.
There are others who would be acceptable, perhaps even very good Secretaries of State. I have high regard for Senators Kerry, Hagel and Dodd, General Jim Jones, career diplomats like Nicholas Burns and Chris Hill. But there is only one diplomat who has the skill and track record–historical memory and the working knowledge–to negotiate the deals that will be needed between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban and who will know how to play the game to come with Iran…and that’s Holbrooke.
I’ve known the man for 30 years. He is a friend, and our friendship made me reluctant to make this argument. But this is a difficult moment for our country overseas. We will have great Ambassadors in the President-Elect and Vice President Joe Biden. We also need our very best negotiator on board–and that’s Richard Holbrooke.