Cold War

by Warren Bass | December 13, 1999

Richard Holbrooke knows about foreign policy feuds. In the late '70s, he was assistant secretary of state for Asia in the Carter administration—a young bull in the China shop. One morning, he answered his phone at 6:30 and received a tooth-rattling attack from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was bent on cutting Cyrus Vance's entire (as Brzezinski saw it, leak-prone) State Department out of his forthcoming trip to Beijing. According to the account in Patrick Tyler's new book, A Great Wall, Brzezinski not only refused to let additional State Department staffers plan the trip, he also threatened to keep Holbrooke himself back in Washington. "I have never heard such a vile, profane man," Holbrooke told Michel Oksenberg, Brzezinski's main China aide. "Zbig yelled at me over the phone so loud that it woke up my wife!"

Now, two decades later, Washington conventional wisdom holds that Holbrooke is locked in a similar feud with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But that both overstates and strangely understates the nature of their rivalry. In terms of pure venom, the Albright-Holbrooke feud is scarcely in the same league as paralyzing vendettas like Brzezinski versus Vance or Henry Kissinger versus William Rogers, Nixon's hapless secretary of state. Unlike their squabbling forebears, Albright and Holbrooke are basically ideological soul mates. Little of the jostling is about policy; it's about politics, personality, and power. And it may keep the Clinton administration's two most articulate advocates of humanitarian intervention from consistently banding together to move policy.

The roots of the rivalry are clear enough: both Albright and Holbrooke dearly wanted to be President Clinton's secretary of state in 1996. Holbrooke had been aiming for the job for decades, working as a foreign-service officer in Vietnam, the youngest-ever assistant secretary of state, and architect of the 1995 Dayton accords. "There's probably a feeling of entitlement on Holbrooke's part that he should be secretary," notes one administration source. "He was in Vietnam when she was raising babies. So why should he defer to her?"

 

 

For her part, Albright "was gunning for secretary of state since 1982, or at least 1984," says Brzezinski in Michael Dobbs's useful biography of Albright. She served as a Brzezinski National Security Council staffer, taught at Georgetown University, ran a think tank, advised Michael Dukakis in 1988, and sat at Clinton's first-term Cabinet table as U.N. ambassador. Still, she said, "The boys will never let it happen." But, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher stepped down, Senate Republicans groused that George Mitchell, the early front-runner, had been too partisan as the Democrats' Senate leader. Holbrooke had the backing of Vice President Al Gore and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, but he also had a reputation as a self-promoter and a bully. In the end, according to Dobbs, Clinton liked the chemistry of the Republican William Cohen at the Department of Defense, the Jewish Sandy Berger at the NSC, the Hispanic Bill Richardson at the United Nations, and the female Albright at State. Aides say Albright and Holbrooke were so close ideologically—in contrast to the more cautious, lawyerly Mitchell—that they made a deal: if one of them wasn't picked, they would both urge Clinton to pick the other. Three days after Albright was named secretary, Holbrooke ritualistically trooped to her Georgetown home to offer his support.

 

If Clinton's 1996 choice of Albright over Holbrooke produced the rivalry, Holbrooke's selection as U.N. ambassador caused the bad blood. Albright recognized Holbrooke's skills but had misgivings, at the very least. On CNN, "Albright told Larry King it [Holbrooke's appointment] was her idea," reminisced Thomas Lippman, The Washington Post's former State Department correspondent. "And even Larry King, who never challenges his interlocutors, said, ‘It was your idea?!’” An Albright confidant in the department told Lippman that she meant it "in the sense that Holbrooke was one of the few obvious choices." A former administration official is blunter: "She did fight tooth and nail for him not to be appointed U.N. ambassador." Albright argued, the source says, that Holbrooke was a loose cannon who would disrupt a collegial foreign policy team. "His style both awes and repulses you at the same time," said a foreign policy insider. "It's awe-inspiring because it's dynamic, effective, and directed toward noble ends. But it's done in such a neuralgic and transparent way that it's icky."

Things got worse during the wretched year Holbrooke spent waiting for his confirmation. Holbrooke, says a source familiar with his thinking, "felt that she [Albright] wasn't doing enough" to get him confirmed after his nomination stumbled over an internal investigation into his finances. According to a widely circulated Washington joke, the anonymous tip-off came from either Albright or her legendarily zealous spokesman, James Rubin. The Senate also nosed around the ethics charges, prolonging Holbrooke's stay in purgatory—which, unhappily, coincided with the low point of Albright's tenure. Besieged with Kosovo, North Korea, Iraq, and a wheezing Middle East peace process, the last thing Albright felt like doing was handling Holbrooke. Meanwhile, he resented being left to twist in the wind. "There's no way that Albright could risk interfering with the State Department inspector-general," Lippman argues. Some close to Holbrooke concur; others are still not mollified.

Now that Holbrooke is in Albright's old seat in New York, the rivalry is down to a more manageable size. But Holbrooke—while careful to say "Secretary Albright and I" often—isn't exactly the deferring type. "It's clear he's Bill Clinton's subordinate," says one former administration official. "It's not clear he's Madeleine Albright's subordinate." It used to be national security advisers and secretaries of state who clashed, but Albright made the U.N. job a viable means of ascent—with ironic results. Early in her term as secretary, when Bill Richardson was U.N. ambassador, Rubin (whom hostile U.N. staffers called "J.R.") was said to have raised eyebrows during White House debates about who would appear on the Sunday talk shows. "Jamie Rubin would object to any public appearance that Richardson wanted to do because he wanted Albright on TV," said one former administration aide. "People there a few years before couldn't believe how ironic it was, because when she was in New York, she was on TV all the time, and that's how she built a public persona and became secretary. That's exactly what Dick Holbrooke is doing now."

 

 

Today, however, Albright is at the pinnacle of her career. She is concerned not about a palace coup but about the judgment of history, and that makes Holbrooke useful. For his part, Holbrooke knows that much of the reason he lost out to Albright in 1996 was his reputation as a prima donna, and he took the U.N. post to help beat the rap that he can't be a team player—and to maintain his position as Gore's secretary-in-waiting.

So why do the bad feelings linger? For one thing, Albright's and Holbrooke's staffers sometimes snipe even when their bosses are getting along. "The staff is usually the source of these items, because the principals have to work together every day," notes Thomas Donilon, a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Warren Christopher.

More seriously, the feud has become an echo chamber for the old charge that Albright is a lightweight. "Poor girl, she is out of her league," former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali once sniffed, according to Dobbs. Holbrooke "knows he's smarter," said one source familiar with his views. "It's an accepted datum of the situation, but I can't imagine Dick saying it." Still, Holbrooke's appraisal strikes a raw nerve. There's no reason to think Holbrooke himself is sexist—Holbrooke thinks he's smarter than most people—but the same can't be said of many of those who haul out the tired old line that Albright isn't qualified for her job. (She came to it after four years as a member of the Cabinet and the Principals' Committee, and her Ph.D. makes one more than Holbrooke has.) If Albright is a foreign policy lightweight, how does one describe George W. Bush—no weight whatsoever? But Albright cannot lose the tag, and the rivalry offers occasion for it to be reapplied.

"There is sexism," says Leslie Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is hard for a woman, and it's particularly hard to be the first." Indeed, a jarring number of foreign policy insiders with no personal relationship with Albright routinely call her by her first name. (Some in the administration noticed when the usually disciplined Holbrooke fell into this habit, referring to her solely by her first name in a November 17 Washington Post interview.) "In meetings with those who've just met her, people walk in and say, `Well, Madeleine'—something you'd never imagine with a male secretary of state," says one administration official. "She wouldn't claim to be Kissingerian in terms of her ability to sound deep, but I've seen her with Talbott and [Thomas] Pickering and some senior ambassadors, and she definitely holds her own. None of them are frigging geniuses." Still, Vietnam was known as McNamara's war; Kosovo is known as "Madeleine's."

 

With compelling political incentives to be cordial, Holbrooke and Albright have hammered out less an entente than a form of detente. In Holbrooke's first few months at the United Nations, job one has been the pending deal with Congress on paying America's arrears to the world body. Holbrooke has been working the Hill frenetically. When he dropped in on Senator Jesse Helms one day, Helms took him along to a GOP caucus lunch, which Holbrooke used to win entree to the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who'd voted against his nomination. Holbrooke's weeks of wearing out shoe leather on the Hill have won him some unlikely fans. Senate staffers now complain that Albright and Rubin sometimes take the praise for Holbrooke's work on issues like winning back the American seat on ACABQ, the important U.N. budget and oversight committee, from which U.N. members booted the United States because of its unpaid dues. Albright's allies counter that some moves—like taking the heat from pro-choice groups for the U.N. arrears deal's reversal on abortion or getting New Zealand to give Washington its ACABQ seat—are rightly made above a U.N. ambassador's pay grade.

Albright and Holbrooke's other main zone of intersection, the Balkans, is a bigger problem. Albright liked to say during Clinton's first term that she and Holbrooke were "joined at the hip" on most major European issues. Broadly speaking, that's true for the Balkans—both favor an activist policy to defend some form of multiethnicity in Bosnia and Kosovo and both hated Western pusillanimity as Bosnia bled.

During the first term, Albright argued relentlessly for air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs, while Holbrooke became the key figure on Bosnia only after the bombs fell in 1995. But they were both players on the issue of Kosovo, where Holbrooke, as a special envoy, got Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to agree in October 1998 to a cease-fire and troop withdrawal. Milosevic promptly violated the deal. After the massacre of 45 Kosovars in Racak in January 1999, a former administration official says Albright argued "that the previous policy—i.e., the Holbrooke policy of negotiating and trying to trust Milosevic—had failed utterly" and should be replaced by the "Rambouillet strategy" of demanding Serb concessions at gunpoint. "To Albright, it was somewhat odious to have to deal with Milosevic, who's not one of her favorite people—and, while Milosevic isn't one of Holbrooke's favorite people either, he is one of his favorite negotiating partners," notes a foreign policy insider.

While many Holbrooke proteges were at Rambouillet, the summit marked what was probably the pair's biggest policy dispute. Holbrooke was at key meetings before Rambouillet, according to administration officials, but he made it known as the cataclysm hit that he preferred a more traditional diplomatic approach. By negotiating only with the weaker party, the Kosovars, and imposing the deal on the Serbs, the Clinton team members were "putting their ass on the line for a deal that couldn't possibly happen," one diplomatic source said. While Holbrooke was careful to avoid leaving fingerprints, he made his displeasure felt, administration sources say, by speaking privately to reporters. "All the anti-Madeleine media came directly from Holbrooke," one source says. "He was on the phone 25 hours a day, making sure he knew what was happening in Rambouillet and that whatever failure came out was portrayed as Albright's." But Albright's allies argue that Rambouillet got the Europeans ready to use force, without which Milosevic could have ethnically cleansed Kosovo with impunity. "Richard Holbrooke, with all his skills, couldn't have stopped that dilemma," says an administration official. "You might see an aspect of Holbrooke's personality in his being notably absent from the public stage during the seventy-eight-day bombing period, waiting to see how it would come out while the rest of the administration was hanging in there," the official adds. "He always had reasons to go on TV before then." Albright figured that the way to get Milosevic to cave in "was to actually threaten him and not send Dick Holbrooke, and she was right and he was wrong," one former official says. "To Albright, force is the only thing that works. To Holbrooke, it's a tool—and a marginal one at that, because he thinks he can deal." But both rivals underestimated Milosevic's ruthlessness.

In fact, the central irony of the Albright-Holbrooke rivalry is the same today as it was when they first competed for the job of secretary of state: it's a diversion from the larger, ongoing administration struggle about how interventionist liberal interventionism should be. And the Albright-Holbrooke side isn't necessarily winning. In the administration today, core issues such as Russia, China, and Iraq are increasingly handled by the NSC, not the State Department. Clinton's foreign policy majordomo is neither Albright nor Holbrooke but the unassuming former trade lawyer Sandy Berger. And Berger is said to be annoyed with Albright for making it harder to find a peaceful way out of the Kosovo mess, and irritated by Holbrooke's abrasiveness at Principals' Committee meetings. Having Berger in the driver's seat limits the clout of both Albright and Holbrooke, making it easier for them to fall prey to, in Freud's phrase, the "narcissism of minor difference." As one former administration aide puts it, "Their worldviews are pretty similar. So maybe the reason there's so much tension is: Whose niche is this, anyway?"

Warren Bass is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.

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