As President Obama meets with his top advisers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region Tuesday, one topic of discussion will surely be the question of who might replace Richard Holbrooke.
Obama's special envoy to the region, Holbrooke played a uniquely high-profile role in U.S. diplomatic efforts. Following his death at 69 on Monday, questions immediately turned to who could replace him — or whether a job created especially for him could readily be filled by someone else.
Holbrooke had brought together on his team not just diplomats but representatives from more than a dozen federal agencies — everything from the CIA and drug enforcement to the Department of Agriculture.
He had an ability to arm-wrestle people from various parts of the government, holding weekly shura (Arabic for consultation) meetings of U.S. officials to help coordinate their efforts. That kind of interagency dialogue and capacity-building remains very much needed, says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
"I remember hearing a senior National Security Council official criticizing Richard at a dinner, saying he's replicating all the functions of government," Clemons says. "What he's got is all these parts of government focusing on the non-military parts of Afghanistan."
It appears that, since Holbrooke has built up this structure, it will continue.
"It will be hard simply to do away with it," says Dan Hamilton, who directs a center for transatlantic relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and had served as a policy adviser to Holbrooke during earlier diplomatic tours.
Rumors about who would be the new "Af-Pak" envoy have focused on Barnett R. Rubin, a senior fellow at New York University, who has been a consultant to Holbrooke, and Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who led an Obama administration review of Afghanistan policy.
Holbrooke was an outsized presence in American diplomacy, credited with negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995. His appointment to the special envoy position was an illustration of the importance Obama placed on the region, much like the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell (D-ME) as special envoy to the Middle East.
Holbrooke's death may mean that the interagency effort may have less profile, Hamilton says, and perhaps end up being more closely coordinated through normal channels at the State Department's South Asia Bureau.
Holbrooke "was an extraordinarily capable person," says Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York. But it's not clear that a large personality like Holbrooke is what's needed for the U.S. to achieve success in Afghanistan.
Despite his prominence, Holbrooke's star appeared to wax and wane at times within the Obama administration and he was not viewed as the key architect of U.S. policy in the region.
"The kind of results that he attained in Bosnia — that is, a combination of threat of American force on a particular country and a singular personality like Milosevic — that arm-twisting and brow-beating pressure, that doesn't work in the Afghan political context," Menon says. "It's a much more murky, fluid situation, and it's not clear whom to put pressure on."
As a result, despite the importance of Holbrooke's portfolio and the man's own stature, Menon doesn't believe that his death "fundamentally changes the dynamics of what the war is all about."
(Alan Greenblatt reports for NPR.org.)