Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is holding a series of private meetings with friends and advisers in Washington and New York in an attempt to launch a public relations offensive to counter any negative blowback from the Gen. Stanley McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone, where McChrystal belittled Holbrooke as a pest and political games-player who opposed the military’s insurgency strategy.
“He’s pulling in all his old friends from the Council on Foreign Relations and retired reporters who shill for him,” says a State Department source, who has seen Holbrooke’s schedule for the next couple of days. “[Holbrooke] figures that he has a finite period of time to fix any damage to his reputation before the Obama Administration begins to wonder whether or not he’s a political liability.”
Another element to Holbrooke’s thinking, according to sources, is that, should he have a stronger hand in diplomatic activity in the region, he believes that with the U.S. military changeover in Afghanistan he may have some breathing room to push for back channel engagement with Iran. “He’s been telling friends for several years now that he thinks that if the U.S. can help Iran with its drug-smuggling problem over the Afghan border, that Iran will help us with Afghanistan stabilization,” says the State Department source. “It’s kind of a cockamamie idea, but when you have a guy who is hesitant to bash the Taliban, what do you expect?”
Holbrooke on several occasions recently has gone soft on Iran, most tellingly when, during a conversation with senior Pakistani officials, he claimed that U.S. respected Pakistan as a sovereign country and that it was entitled to enter into a gas pipeline deal with Iran despite sanctions on Iran by the UN Security Council. A day later, after the State Department had what was termed by the State Department source as a “frank” discussion, Holbrooke told Pakistani officials that their pipeline deal might conflict with U.S. law, as well as EU sanctions, and that the Pakistanis should not over-commit to the deal.
Holbrooke’s fascination with engaging with Iran is not new. Early in the Obama Administration, Holbrooke told an Afghan reporter: “It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan. They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”