Saturday, March 7, 2009

Richard Holbrooke and Real W.M.D.’s

Richard Holbrooke is an outstanding American diplomat who has gone back and forth from the private sector to public service in the course of a very significant career.  He is memorable for his work on the Dayton accords and bringing Slobodon Milosovich and his cronies to a peaceful agreement.  He has been Ambassador to Germany and to the United Nations and in now the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.  He also was the major creator of the American Academy in Berlin in 1996.  In a document about the founding of this institution the opening paragraph has a memorable quote from Henry Kissinger which I paraphrase as follows:  “When Richard Holbrooke comes to ask you for money (e.g. for his new Academy), go ahead and give it to him right away.  You’ll have to in the long run, and it’s a lot quicker to get it out of the way.  He’s very stubborn!”   It has been his stubbornness that has been one of the hallmarks of his career.

Last summer I read a remarkable book review by Holbrooke in the New York Times (22 June 2008) entitled “Real W.M.D’s”.  This was the review of a new book (at that time) by Michael Dobbs on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  As Holbrooke said, there had been many books on this issue, but in his opening sentences he says, “The result is a book with sobering new information about the world’s only superpower nuclear confrontation — as well a contemporary relevance.”  The key words here are “sobering new information”.   The book by Dobbs is entitled “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War”.  I’ve posted the review by Holbrooke on my Facebook page, and it can be found directly in the New York Times or by writing me for an email copy.  I strongly recommend reading it.

Towards the end of the review Holbrooke tells his readers that if they think they know a lot about the Cuban Missile Crisis, then they should immediately read this new book, and they would learn a lot they didn’t know.  If the reader was less familiar with it (I belonged to this category; I only knew the headlines), then one should read the survey of the crisis by Max Frankel (former NY Times editor):  “High Noon in the Cold War” published about five years ago. 

Following Kissinger’s advice to not wait and get it over with, I ordered both of these books immediately (e-book versions) and finished both quite quickly, being mesmerized by this tale of high drama and very scary scenarios.  We, that is the whole world, were very, very lucky to have gotten through that time without a major tragedy.

I want to end by quoting Holbrooke who was writing during the last year of the Bush administration:

It is hard to read this book without thinking about what would have happened if the current administration had faced such a situation — real weapons of mass destruction only 90 miles from Florida; the Pentagon urging “surgical” air attacks followed by an invasion; threatening letters from the leader of a real superpower and senators calling the president “weak” just weeks before a midterm Congressional election.

Note: the provocative photo is from the NY Times Review and is by Paul Sahre