Special Representative Holbrooke's Role in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Interview With Jodi Kantor of the New York Times
Washington, DC
February 6, 2009

QUESTION: Well, thank you so much for giving me a couple of minutes. The goal is a really nuanced, substantive profile of Special Representative Holbrooke. Boy, that’s a mouthful.




QUESTION: You know, that gets – that doesn’t so much do a retread of his past, but really talks about the match between man and mission, and how he – what he’s done for the last eight years, how he’s approached this particular job. And so a lot of the story is about your relationship with him, and so all – pretty much all of the questions are geared to that.


The first thing I wanted to ask you about, though, is to tell me, in as much detail as you can, about the origins of your idea for some sort of special envoy or representative to this region. I understand that it was a trip to the region in ’07 and a series of meetings with leaders there that gave you the idea.


SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, thanks, Jodi, and I’m really happy to talk with you about all of this. I do believe, in general, in the utility of special envoys. I have seen the importance of zeroing in with all tools at our disposal on problems from the Irish Troubles to the Balkans, and I knew that the use of special envoys can be very helpful.


In 2007, I went as a senator to Iraq and Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, with two of my colleagues, Senator Bayh from Indiana and Representative McHugh from New York. And we had a series of meetings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that illustrated dramatically the breakdown in communications between President Karzai and President Musharraf, between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.


And it was clear to me that there was a great deal of animosity that could lead to problems between them, and with us as well, in what we were attempting to do. I had a long conversation with both President Karzai and President Musharraf, where each complained at length about the other, and it raised alarm bells in my mind. And when I got back to Washington, I called the White House and I spoke to Steve Hadley, the National Security Advisor, and strongly recommended that the President consider assigning someone to be focused on the area and to interact with the leaders in the two countries.


And that was just not an idea that the Bush Administration thought was worth pursuing. And later, they did appoint General Doug Lute to oversee the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s not what I was advocating. And I was convinced from ’07 on that so long as we remained involved in Afghanistan, and so long as Pakistan would impact what we could do in Afghanistan and also had implications for our security and policies in the region, that having an envoy made a lot of sense.


So when President Obama – President-elect Obama asked me if I would be Secretary of State, I told him in the very first conversation that I can recall that I had some ideas if I were to accept the job that I thought would be important to explore, and among those were the idea of immediately moving on someone for the Middle East and someone for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was positive about the idea. He told me to pursue it, work it up, get back to him.


And after I accepted the position and began looking at the broad array of problems that we were going to inherit, I put the Middle East, Pakistan-Afghanistan, among others, at the very top of the list, and began the process of, you know, recruiting people for both of those posts. And you know, it took some time, and I talked to a lot of people.


But I must confess that from the beginning, I recommended that Richard Holbrooke be the person that I and the President would send to Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I was, you know, delighted when the President agreed and we were able to work the necessary preliminaries from, you know, early – really, late December to mid January so that we could be in a position – because I wanted to nominate our two envoys for the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan as soon as possible. And I explained to the President why I thought that would be an excellent way to, you know, get started and make a statement about what our priorities were, and he agreed. And as you know, we were able to accelerate the process and make the announcements, you know, on the second day of my – you know, of his tenure and the first day of mine.


QUESTION: Sure. And I would love – I mean, aside from the completely obvious parts – his achievements in the Balkans, et cetera, et cetera, his immense, long experience – can you talk a little bit about the specific match between man and mission? You said that immediately you sort of knew that Ambassador Holbrooke was the right person for this particular job. And you know, some of that is completely obvious to me, but since he was such a close advisor of yours so long – for so long, I’m curious about what qualities you saw in him that matched particularly well with the Af-Pak situation.


SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as I have said many times, and as the President has reaffirmed, you know, we have to make diplomacy and development at the center of our foreign policy and national security. And I have said, we have got to be smarter about how we exercise our power, and at the heart of smart power are smart people. And as he has proven many times over his long career in service to our country, they don’t come any smarter or more capable than Richard Holbrooke.


You know, at his introduction ceremony, both the President and I emphasized that nowhere is the need for a vigorous diplomatic approach more apparent than in the two regions that epitomize the nuance and complexity of our interconnected world than the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Richard represents the kind of robust, persistent, determined diplomacy that the President intends to pursue, and that I’m honored to help him fulfill.


And when I think about what we’re facing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I believed that, you know, Richard brought a lifetime of experience. He’s passionate about securing peace in situations where it does not exist. He has seen the cost of conflict in terms of human lives with his own eyes going back to the early 1960s in Vietnam. He is single-minded in his desire to make the world a more peaceful place. And I know from many, many hours of conversation, going back many years, that he has a preexisting concern for Afghanistan. As a young diplomat, he traveled through Afghanistan. During the last eight years as he pursued his many interests, and particularly his work on behalf of the Asia Society, he returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan and the neighbors.


And the best way to know how somebody will handle a difficult situation is to look at what they’ve done in the past. And I’ve known of Richard Holbrooke for decades. I watched him up-close in the Clinton Administration. I admire deeply his ability to shoulder the most vexing and difficult challenges. And he does bring relentless focus and energy. He can wear you out, but it is necessary to keep everybody, you know, on point about what we’re trying to achieve.


QUESTION: Okay, great. And talk – let me just finish typing that quote, to keep everybody – can you talk a little bit about the art of managing Richard Holbrooke? I mean, this is a guy who even his closest friends admit that he is loving – you know, and they say this lovingly, that he can be overbearing, that he’s this enormous force of nature, that he can break a little crockery in the process of doing some very noble things. Can you talk a little bit about – since you are his boss – a little bit about, over the years, the best ways you’ve found to direct and focus him?


SECRETARY CLINTON: Gee, I’d never heard that he could be any of those things before. (Laughter.) You know, personally, because I do know him so well, I understand what drives him and, you know, how mission-oriented he is. He’s a consummate professional, and he is always looking for ways to advance the real and lasting solutions that are in pursuit of American interests and values. And obviously, you know, like any, you know, really focused and passionate person, occasionally he has to be, you know, brought down to earth and reined in so that he, you know, doesn’t levitate or, you know, levitate the rest of us.


But he is someone who, you know, is really such a dedicated public servant that I, you know – I am, you know, really grateful he took on this responsibility. It takes – you know, it takes a big change in his life to be able to relocate and do this. But I think that, you know, many – you know, many people who have worked with Richard over the years know that he’s someone who, you know, just doesn’t quit, is always trying to be creative and flexible, but without losing sight of what’s most important. He’s not somebody who gets – you know, loses the forest for the trees. He wants to count every tree, but at the end of the day, he wants to try to, you know, create the conditions that will lead to peace.


MODERATOR: Jodi, I think we’ll have to wrap up unless you have something very pressing.


QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, well, let’s do a couple of sort of fact-checky type things. These are things that I’ve been reporting that I would love your read on. Can you explain a little bit how control of the embassies in Islamabad and Kabul will work? I mean, does – essentially, does he have direct control over those embassies? Or will they work through the regular State Department machinery?


SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, you know, they’ll work through the regular State Department machinery, but in collaboration. You know, we have many Foreign Service and Civil Service professionals, you know, at State and in the countries, who have been and will continue to be, fully engaged on Afghanistan and Pakistan. You know, they are among the best we have. There are a lot of people of deep experience and expertise. They’ve been dedicated, often at great peril and personal sacrifice, and they’re going to be the underpinning of everything that our government does to achieve peace and stability in the region.


Obviously, I expect everyone to work together. And you know, we’re going to be, you know, looking to, you know, Richard to provide, you know, leadership. But we also will be, you know, seeking out the advice and opinions of others who have roles that are important in helping us determine our way forward.


QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Okay, great. Now, this is definitely something I want to check with you because it involves a pretty private conversation. Someone – not Richard, I should note – told me, obviously second or third hand, that when the President first approached you about the Secretary of State job, that your sort of initial, immediate reaction had been to say, I really think Richard Holbrooke might be the best Secretary of State. You know, I just wanted to run that by you before we even think of putting it in the paper.


SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I never comment on conversations with presidents. I started that when my husband was president, and I’m going to continue it now --




SECRETARY CLINTON: -- working for President Obama.


QUESTION: Okay, great. And one more personal anecdote. I have a little sketch of the dinner parties that Ambassador Holbrooke has thrown for you over the years in New York. It sounds like they were pretty fun affairs. Do you have any sort of favorite memories or moments from those?


SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Richard and Kati are close friends of mine and, you know, I really enjoy spending time with them. And the annual Christmas dinner, which they started in the late ‘90s, was just a delight. I mean, a wonderful guest list of eclectic and interesting people. You know, one year Richard had the Salvation Army show up and sing Christmas carols, and another year we, you know, had the late Peter Stone, who was just so funny, start an annual tradition of delivering a poem. And you know, he – I was First Lady and he called me the “First Shiksa” of the nation. I mean, we’ve just had a lot of fun over the years, and they’re just great to be with.


QUESTION: Okay. I heard the toasts got considerably more outrageous than that. (Laughter.)


SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, you’re not going to get any confirmation from me, Jodi. (Laughter.)


SECRETARY CLINTON: Remember, I am now the chief diplomat of the United States of America. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: Okay, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for this. It was really great to be able to talk to you.


SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Great to talk you. Have a good weekend.

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