H.D.S. Greenway

Obama has the right men in the wrong jobs

By H.D.S. Greenway
December 1, 2009

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COULD IT BE that President Obama has put the right men in the wrong jobs? Take the case of George Mitchell, Obama’s special representative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Correctly deciding to tackle this century-old problem early in his presidency, Obama turned to a wise and determined negotiator whose personal interventions in the Northern Ireland peace talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 between the British and Irish nationalists.

Mitchell of Maine had been a Senate majority leader before he turned his hand to diplomacy. His low-key, good-cop approach of toughness masked by endless patience helped pave the way for peace in that troubled province.

In the Middle East, however, Mitchell has come up with nothing and has been hindered by Obama’s back-down on his no-new-settlements demand, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conspicuously defied. Obama never should have gone public with such a demand if he wasn’t going to back it up, but once having done it, and been ignored, the Palestinians, the Arab states, and Israel now perceive that Obama can be rolled, and the whole peace effort is in a shambles.

Then there is Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special envoy to the Afghan-Pakistan theater - embroiled in wars against a determined Taliban enemy with weak and corrupt civilian governments that have reduced the United States to hand-wringing anxiety.

Holbrooke, too, is a seasoned and proven negotiator. He has been a State Department under secretary, an ambassador to Germany, and ambassador to the United Nations. His high- energy, impatient, bad-cop approach at Dayton, Ohio, in 1988 brought an end to an intractable war in Bosnia by banging together the heads of recalcitrant Balkan leaders in intense, sometimes stormy sessions.

Holbrook’s forceful, personal approach carried the day at Dayton, while Mitchell’s softer approach prevailed in Northern Ireland. Weren’t they the perfect choices for their current jobs?

Probably not.

There is something to the old adage that the Palestinians want a deal with the Israelis, but they don’t want to negotiate, while the Israelis would prefer endless negotiations as long as they don’t end in a deal. But endless patience and a willingness to listen isn’t what is needed at this hour.

Obama needs a fresh start in the Middle East if he is ever to recover the initiative. The trouble is of Obama’s making, not Mitchell’s, but there comes a time when a new approach needs a change of personnel if it is to have any credibility. When the good cop hasn’t gotten anywhere, it’s time for the bad cop to step in.

Could someone such as Holbrooke save Obama’s Middle East initiative? Is it time for the non-confrontational Obama to appoint someone confrontational to bang a few heads together?

Turn now to the Afghan-Pakistan problem. Pakistanis and Afghans don’t know the Americans as well as do the Israelis and the Palestinians, and they don’t respond well to coercive diplomacy. Their eyes can glaze over when Westerners appear intimidating, and they tend to say “yes’’ but do “no.’’

Holbrooke had a serious confrontation with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai last August in which Karzai felt bullied, but which the American side said was just a chat.

Subsequently, it was Senator John Kerry, not Holbrooke, who was called upon to walk the Afghan election cat back and get Karzai to agree to a run-off. Now we are told that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be the point person on the Karzai account.

Maybe a soft cop would be more effective than the hard cop as special envoy to the Pakistan-Afghan problem. It might have made more sense if Mitchell had been sent to Kabul and Islamabad, while Holbrooke practiced his approach in the Middle East. It might be time for a special envoy shuffle appointing both men to each other’s jobs.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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