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Interview with Richard Holbrooke

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a leading private equity firm. He is the former US ambassador to the UN and was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement (which ended the war in Bosnia). He is the chairman of the Asia Society, chairman of the American Academy in Berlin, and president and CEO of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS.

This extensive and wide-ranging interview with Asia Society's Nermeen Shaikh was conducted on October 4, 2006 at Ambassador Holbrooke's offices at Perseus LLC in Manhattan.

Following the last straw poll in the Security Council, it seems probable that South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon will be the next UN Secretary-General. US Ambassador John Bolton has said that he was "very pleased by the outcome". What explains American enthusiasm for this particular candidate?

I think that Ban Ki-moon is an excellent candidate. I know him well. I am very pleased that he's been at Asia Society so often, he's a real friend of Asia Society, and I think he will make a terrific secretary-general.

What differentiates him from the other candidates?

This was a campaign, and he ran a very effective campaign. Each candidate had his own strengths and weaknesses. It had to be an Asian so I think the idea of the Latvian president, although she is quite good, was a non-starter. The other candidates, all of whom I know, were excellent, but Ban Ki-moon ran a very effective campaign.

The most important thing to me about his selection is that it went quite smoothly, and that China and the United States were able to agree. I always thought, in fact I wrote in a column in The Washington Post back in February, that anyone Beijing and Washington agreed on would be the next SG, and that's what happened.

Warren Hoge, this morning in a video on the New York Times website, said something about how Foreign Minister Ban had emphasized UN reforms specifically in terms of increasing transparency and accountability. This is apparently, and coincidentally, he says, in sync with what the Bush administration has been pushing.

This isn't about the Bush administration. When I was ambassador, this was our biggest goal. Reform is the most important thing, and I don't think the Bush administration has been as serious about reform as we were. I think there has been a lot of rhetoric, frankly, not being backed up by strong efforts so far. So this is not about the Bush administration. This is about the United Nations' absolute need for reform. Kofi Annan knows that; Ban Ki-moon knows that. Every candidate said that he was for reform. But there are two problems. One person's reform is another's persons change that they oppose. Everyone is for reform until you define it. Then people get worried. The second problem is that the secretary-general does not have the power to make the reforms. The power resides in the member states, which is exercised through the Fifth Committee, which is a budgetary committee, all 192 members of the UN are in the Fifth Committee. I have spent a lot of time in this committee. It is a very difficult place to work because you need overwhelming consensus to get anything done. So reform is essential, but to get there takes a lot of work.

On that theme, in an interview with the Asia Society last week, Foreign Minister Ban said that given the "dramatic changes in the political environment, it is necessary that the Security Council be expanded and reformed." What are the obstacles to such expansion and reform from the US perspective?

Once again, every single country has come out for enlarging the Security Council. But there is a tremendous argument over how to expand it. Some people want more permanent members. Others want just more members. There is one group of countries that says no more permanent members. Some want permanent members without the veto. Some want to have the veto added to Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. What do you do about Africa? The last reform effort was killed by the Africans who did not like the proposals that had been put forward by the so-called Group of Four - Brazil, India, Japan and Germany-all of whom wanted permanent seats. The Africans couldn't agree on how they fit into that. Let's not get carried away with Security Council reform. It is a very valuable idea but it isn't going to happen without an enormous amount of pain and finally, and most importantly, the most important thing about the Security Council is not its size or its composition. The most important thing is its effectiveness. And if you enlarge it, which I have always favored, you have to be sure you enlarge it in a way that doesn't make it ineffective, because that would be a catastrophe.

Well, by definition if you expand it, the likelihood of its becoming more ineffective increases, if you expand it by adding permanent, veto-wielding members.

If you increase the number of veto-wielding members, no matter how justified on its objective merits, you run the additional risk of stalemate. The Security Council is far and away the most important aspect of the great international system that was put into place in 1945. The founding fathers in San Francisco knew that the Security Council was the most important element, and they created it with great intelligence to address the failures of its predecessor, the League of Nations. Let's be very careful before changing it. But be clear: I am in favor of reforming it and enlarging it, but I'm not so sure about how to do it. The last reform effort, earlier this year, just fell apart over that issue.

Other nominees whom I spoke to for secretary-general have pointed out that the United States in fact, despite opinion in many parts of the world, needs the United Nations just as much as the United Nations needs the United States. Would you agree with this claim, and if so, why?

The United Nations is an indispensable organization for US national security interests, but it is also deeply flawed, you have already addressed some of them: the need for reform, transparency, there are many other issues. So it is absolutely true that the UN plays an indispensable role in world stability. In the recent crisis in Lebanon, for example, if we did not have the UN, we wouldn't have been able to find a way to stop the fighting and get a force in place. They would have spent months arguing about who chairs the meetings, where the meetings take place. You have a ready-made structure, which everyone accepts: the United Nations; a ready-made person: the secretary-general. So Kofi Annan was able to step in and do something. So it is a very important organization.

Could you elaborate on why you think the UN is indispensable for the national security of the United States?

Because it plays a critical role in creating a forum and a place to discuss issues, and the Security Council can legitimize the use of force. There are many, many countries in the coalition in Afghanistan, for example, who would not be there without a UN resolution. That is a perfect example. And defeating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is a critically important national security mission. There are many other examples.

At the same time, the power of the UN is limited. Let's take Darfur. The UN passed a resolution on Darfur which sets up a UN force. The Sudanese have said they won't accept it. President Bush has said publicly that this is a test of the UN. I don't agree with that statement. The test is of the great powers that voted for it: Britain, France, Russia and the United States all voted for it, China abstained. So the test is not of the UN - that's just a building on the East River where ambassadors go to vote-the test is of the countries that voted for that resolution.

I will come back to this issue in a bit. But I want to return to another potential problem in the UN. One of the candidates for secretary-general warned that a North-South divide at the UN may come to replace the East-West divide that existed during the Cold War. Do you believe this is likely, and if so, how can the UN address this problem?

I have no idea what that means, there is a North-South divide. So whoever told you that is just making empty words. There is a silly North-South divide. There is a group called the G-77, which is really about 130 countries, which repeatedly takes actions and positions against its own interests because of its visceral anti-neocolonialism. The G-77 is a sad organization because it makes empty gestures instead of practical solutions. But the North-South divide, that's old history. Empty rhetoric, we should move way beyond that.

You've talked about some of this, but could you just outline what you think the principal challenges are that the incoming Secretary-General will confront?

The first three challenges are clear: Darfur, Lebanon and Afghanistan are three of the most important missions in the history of the UN. The UN will have over 100,000 peacekeepers, the most ever and the office of peacekeeping is inadequate for that. They have 600 people in it maybe. They need far more to service and support this. We need a much better peacekeeping operation.

The second challenge is reform, transparency, and all these other things you and I have already talked about.

The third challenge is very specific to the host country, the United States. We are also the largest contributor to the UN and yet the congressional attitude towards the UN is harshly hostile. A good secretary-general will have to go to Washington, not to the executive branch, but to the hill, and talk to Congress about it.

There are plenty of other challenges too: managing a sloppy, slovenly bureaucracy, for example, but above all, it's peacekeeping.

In the three potential peacekeeping operations that you mentioned, I note that you did not mention Iraq, and I imagine you did that for a reason. You have discussed elsewhere the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Given that the war in Iraq happened in fact without UN sanction, how, if at all, do you see the UN playing a role there in its amelioration?

Well, the UN did pass resolutions after the fall of Saddam, legitimizing the process. But after the horrible tragedy which took the lives of Sergio Vieira de Mello and 20 of his colleagues in Baghdad, the UN has been a marginal figure except in regard to elections. The election unit has done indispensable work. I would be very pleased to see the UN take a larger role but I did not put it on my initial list because the three places I mentioned, in two of them, Lebanon and Afghanistan, the UN has ongoing major operations, and the third, Darfur, is the ultimate challenge to the system.

What kind of role could you see the UN playing in Iraq though?

The United States has been working very closely with the UN leadership on the so-called Iraq Compact for economic reconstruction. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown has been having these meetings. That is an area where they can do a great deal to help the Iraqis. But on the core issues: security and stability for the Iraqi people, and particularly in Baghdad, where a tremendous battle is going on for control of the city, and it's not going well so far, there's nothing the UN can do.

Now turning to Iran: you have said in a recent interview with Bloomberg that it is not clear to you what the present administration is doing with respect to Iran. Now of course just yesterday the Iranians announced that they are not going to cease uranium enrichment as they were asked to do. Do you now think that targeted military strikes against Iran would be a good idea? If not, what are the alternatives?

I can't imagine what scenario justifies targeted American strikes against Iran at this point. You can't remove military force from the table as an option, but the situation isn't remotely close to a point where that needs to be considered.

What do you think the alternatives are?

Negotiations. The Americans originally refused to negotiate with Iran at all, and sent its messages through France, the UK and Germany. That made no sense at all. Then they joined the consortium of negotiating countries but allowed the messages still to be sent by a European. And that still doesn't make much sense. Since Iran is a decisive factor in Iraq, Afghanistan, the whole Gulf, Hamas, Hezbollah, I think direct talks with Iran over the whole panoply of issues that divide us, is something we ought to be open to. Now if the Iranians refuse to do that, you have to deal with that. But we've never tested that proposition.

What do you think the likelihood is that the present administration would make such an offer?

I have no idea. You have to ask them.

Slim, though, I would imagine.

So far, they've ruled it out. This administration has refused to even talk to Syria, and I disagree with that.

Although you've said that you don't see what would justify military strikes at the moment, you also say that the military option can't be taken off the table. What do you think the implications of a military strike would be if it happened in the next two years?

I can't tell you because it depends on what they did, what their targets are, how effective it is. Strikes can range from very effective, as in the case of our airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo, which were 100 per cent successful in achieving their political objectives without any loss of American or NATO lives, to utter fiascos. Airstrikes sometimes need to be backed up by ground troops, sometimes not. So I wouldn't speculate on that.

The Americans are really not in a position to provide ground troops to any additional operation.

Yes, that would be difficult.

And even if the military strikes were as successful as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo, as you say, don't you think there would be rather negative consequences across the region?

Undoubtedly. No question.

Do you think the UN can play a role at all, given that the Americans and the Iranians right now seem unlikely to engage in direct talks?

I was very struck by the fact that President Ahmadinejad attacked in his speech in the General Assembly the United Nations system and the Security Council even more vigorously than he attacked the United States. So if they are serious about questioning the legitimacy of the UN, then you have an additional problem. Still Kofi Annan has gone to Tehran and I think that was the right thing to do. The next secretary-general should engage very heavily in that.

Apart from the reservations you mention Iran having with respect to the UN, in situations where the United States is not engaging directly in bilateral talks - there are a number of examples, you mentioned Syria, but also North Korea - is there any way in which the UN can play a facilitating role?

In which areas?

Say North Korea.

I think the UN should play an active role in North Korea. I am hoping that Ban Ki-moon's familiarity with the region will be an asset. After all, it's his country.

Absolutely. You gestured at this now, and you have suggested in another recent interview that Iran has been the greatest beneficiary of American military intervention in the region both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

Well I ask you, which country in the world has benefitted the most by events in the last five years? It's clearly Iran. They have Hamas, they have Hezbollah stronger than ever, they have $70 oil, which gives them billions of dollars to play around with and make mischief with. They have a Shi'ite government in Iraq after 400 years of Sunni rule, and they are the dominant external political influence. They have massive political and economic influence in western Afghanistan, which is Dari-speaking, i.e., farsi-speakers. Although they are Sunnis, they speak a form of Persian. They're feeling very cocky these days. And as long as we're tied down in Iraq, they have a lot more room to maneuver. We have to confront Iran. It is a very tough challenge.

Going back to North Korea, there is speculation that it is increasingly likely that they will carry out nuclear tests. Do you think that there are any initiatives that the American administration could undertake now that might stave this off?

I don't know the specifics, but I certainly think that even more than Iran, we should have direct talks with North Korea while keeping the South Koreans and the other parties - China, Russia, Japan - very fully informed. I don't understand why we're not talking directly to North Korea. We did under the Clinton administration. They reached an agreement. Of course everyone knew that the North Koreans would try to cheat on it, but under Clinton, the North Koreans didn't build weapons. They've been building weapons ever since, so I think direct talks with a combination of carrots and sticks, threats and offers, is the way to go. The details are very complicated and I wouldn't want to second-guess them on it. The people in charge of this issue in the United States government, some of them are extremely able and I have a lot of confidence in them. But the overall policy strikes me as a bit schizophrenic.

Many recent reports suggest that Pakistan is by no means an unqualified ally in the so-called "war on terrorism". How do you understand the role of the Pakistan military and in particular, its intelligence services, and how might this be contributing to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan?

There are certain issues, and this is one of them, in which there is a constant debate within the US government and you never quite know what the facts are. And the question of what the Pakistani military is up to, what ISI is up to, in western Pakistan, in Waziristan and North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, is one of those issues. And I honestly don't know the answer to your question.

It is a bit worrying though that one of the apparently principal allies of the United States in the region is playing, what to many, if not all, appears to be, minimally, a confusing game.

I agree, and I know President Musharraf, and I find him a rather appealing person in many ways, and he assures everyone he sees that they're doing everything they can in an area which has historically been out of the reach of Islamabad's control. Some people don't believe him. But the dilemma is heightened by the fact that it's hard to see a government in Pakistan that would be better in terms of this issue than Musharraf.

Then there is the other issue about democracy in Pakistan which complicates it even more. If Pakistan explodes, if you have an Islamicist takeover of the government in Pakistan, then the crisis that the world faces in that region will only deepen.

So you think it is actually in the interests of the Americans to continue supporting Musharraf despite conflicting claims about how much he is actually assisting in this war?

To withdraw American support for Musharraf would be to unleash a hurricane which no one could control and which is very likely to produce an even more dangerous situation. This is a tough problem because the situation is an equilibrium, but it is not a stable one. And if the US switches its position, it could be catastrophic and it's hard to imagine any government in Pakistan which wouldn't create more problems.

So I would continue to support Musharraf while continuing to put maximum pressure on him. If I were to suggest a policy, that would be it.

Peter Beinart in The Good Fight, while discussing the role of liberal Democrats in winning the Cold War, draws comparisons between communism and the present global jihad, as you point out in a recent review article for Foreign Affairs. How, if at all, do you think that Islamist movements have replaced communism as the great ideological threat to the United States?

Well I think we have to be very careful here. We are not at war with Islam, and we are not in a clash of civilizations. When people say that, they are creating a lose-lose situation for the United States. First of all, we have 6 million or more Muslims in the United States. The numbers aren't clear, but it's a lot. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are not part of these jihadist movements. At the same time, the United States and Europe face some very formidable and very hostile challenges from extremely angry people who are willing to resort to the most disgusting and unacceptable forms of behaviour. Murder, mass murder. And we have to devise ways to go after that segment without making a blanket indictment of everybody who follows the Islamic faith. It is a very difficult equation, but it has to be done.

Do you think it's comparable to communism?

Do I think what's comparable to communism?

Well, Islamist movements, Islamism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamo-fascism, there are many names that are given to this phenomenon.

Well, I don't know what Islamo-fascism means. That's your phrase, not mine!

It's certainly not my phrase!

I just heard you use it!

I'm quoting others.

You're not going to hear me utter that phrase. The question is clear. I am sure you would agree that the United States and Western Europe have real enemies. People have been killing people in subways, buses, and in airplanes, in very brutal ways, beheading people and so on. They have made very clear in their public statements what their goals are, and what their targets are. The target is not just the United States and Europe, it's also secular, Muslim regimes in Egypt and other countries, Jordan, Indonesia and so on. They have in mind what I would call a throwback to an earlier form of government, actually an earlier form of government that didn't really exist except in their myth. They are very dangerous and determined. Unlike the Soviet period, unlike the Cold War, they don't control any government on earth. There is no government in the hands of these people. There was one, Afghanistan, but they were dispersed. However, they have a very strong public effort to gain adherence including people who are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have a problem. And to pretend we don't, or to blame it on some external issue, like Israel, is very misleading. This is not about Israel.

But there is much speculation that America's unquestioned support for Israel has contributed a great deal to the antagonism towards the US in the region in particular, and in the Muslim world in general. Do you think that's true, and if so, what do you think ought to be done?

I have no doubt that the leaders of these anti-American movements have used our support of Israel as a justification for stirring up additional problems. But that's not the core reason. That is not what this is about. Bin Laden, for example: what brought bin Laden into his jihadist efforts had nothing to do with Israel. His objection was to the American troops in Saudi Arabia. Why were those troops there? That had nothing to do with Israel. They were there as a result of the Gulf War of 1991. So there's a perfect example. But then later on he realized that attacking American support for Israel is a pretty good way to recruit people. As for Hezbollah and Hamas, of course those are single-issue movements, but it doesn't really matter. The US is not going to waver in its support of Israel. That is just not what the US will do.

Why do you think that the US has this particular alliance with Israel? What do you think the basis of it is?

It's historic. It's from the day that Israel was founded. The US believed that the Jewish people had the right to their own state. And they supported it, as did the British, although the British were kind of complicated: they did sometimes, sometimes they didn't. But the American support for Israel has been unwavering from the beginning and it's correct that it is. That doesn't mean we agree with Israel on every single thing it does. Israelis disagree with each other. Israel is a very aggressive democracy where everybody in Israel thinks they ought to be prime minister!

So the US does not necessarily have to agree with every single thing the government does when a lot of the people don't agree themselves, but general support for Israel, and absolute support if their survival is involved, that's easy, and the American public has always supported that.

Do you think the survival of Israel was at stake in the most recent conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon?

I think the Israelis were perfectly justified in going after a movement which had, by its own admission, 15-20,000 rockets poised to attack Israel, and sitting just a few miles north of the border. So there was no question, in my mind, that under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the self-defense article, the Israelis had the right to do what they did. That does not mean that they carried this operation in Lebanon out to perfection. They may have degraded the Hezbollah military capability.

Very marginally, it seems.

Who knows? You don't know, I don't know. We don't know what happened, but what is clear is that Hezbollah was strengthened politically.

I read some of your interviews very shortly after September 11th, 2001, and you were speculating at the time, this is in November, that it would only be a matter of time before Osama bin Laden was caught. What do you think accounts for the fact that it's been 5 years and he's as elusive now as he was then?

That's a very good question. I think the first thing is that, at the outset, when he was most on the run and most vulnerable, the US did not pursue him. They subcontracted the effort to warlords in the Jalalabad-Tora Bora region. This was an act of gross irresponsibility and negligence.

And more recently, I think it's probably because he's in Pakistan. It's pretty simple.

Do you think, on balance, that the US is more or less vulnerable to terrorist attacks now than it was 5 years ago?

I suspect that we are less vulnerable, but less vulnerable does not mean invulnerable. And I am particularly distressed by some big weaknesses in our defense of areas, particularly the ports. Airplanes are certainly less vulnerable. No one would dispute that. But that's defending against the last attack. What about the next one? They won't use an airplane, they'll use something else.

You also speculated at the time that if there were to be another attack, it could be a nuclear one. Do you still believe it could be?

Of course, it could be.

How could the US defend against such an attack?

Well you can't defend against it, you have to prevent it, and you have to prevent it through good intelligence, and very aggressive efforts to police the enriched uranium supply.

Where do you think the material could come from?

I don't know, I'm not going to speculate on that. There are so many sources. There's a whole subculture working on this problem, the Nuclear Threat Initiative under Senator Sam Nunn, for example, and Graham Allison, who will tell you that some stuff might have seeped out of the former Soviet Union. Pakistan has obviously behaved very badly. It was incredible what happened there. But right now it's still something that, as far as we know, is not yet in the capability of non-state terrorist organizations. But that doesn't meant it couldn't be in the future.

Do you think that the actions that the Bush administration has taken in the last 5 years have made the United States more unpopular around the world?

I think the evidence of that is overwhelming.

How would you evaluate the relative success of the war on terrorism as its been waged so far?

Well you already asked me that question. I don't know how to evaluate it. I think airplanes are safer, that's clear. But I don't think the ports have been made safe.

But the war on terrorism is not just about securing America's borders, it's also about getting the people who the United States thinks might be responsible for carrying out attacks in the future.

I think that the US's policies have created a lot of new enemies in the last 5 years. I am very distressed about that. I think everybody should be. It is an undeniable fact.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, Asia Society Onine.