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Richard Holbrooke Dies at 69: Remembering Veteran Diplomat’s Overlooked Record in East Timor, Iraq and the Balkans

StoryDecember 15, 2010
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Since his death this week at the age of 69, veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke has been remembered for a storied career that includes brokering the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia. But little attention has been paid to his role in implementing and backing U.S. policies that killed thousands of civilians. Independent journalists Jeremy Scahill and John Pilger join us to discuss Holbrooke’s record in carrying out U.S. policy in Vietnam, East Timor, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Scahill says Holbrooke “represented the utter militarization of what is called 'U.S. diplomacy.'” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 28, 2008The Democrats & Suharto: Bill Clinton & Richard Holbrooke Questioned on Their Support for Brutal Indonesian Dictatorship
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the life of the veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who died Monday night at the age of 69 after suffering from a torn aorta. At the time of his death, Holbrooke was serving as President Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He had served under every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy.

He recently described the war in Afghanistan as one of the hardest diplomatic assignments he has faced.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: There’s no Ho Chi Minh. There’s no Slobodan Miloševic . There’s no Palestinian Authority. There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley described Holbooke as a peacemaker and highlighted his role in brokering the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

P.J. CROWLEY: It is, of course, a very sad day here at the State Department. We have lost one of our own and a legendary figure in Richard Holbrooke, who could fill a room, including this one, as he did many times and took great pleasure in engaging the press in advancing whatever it was he was working on, whether it was peace in the Balkans, you know, peace in Congo as U.N. ambassador, or most recently, peace in South Asia in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: While tributes have been pouring in for Richard Holbrooke, little attention has been paid to his role in implementing and backing U.S. policies that killed thousands of civilians. As Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, Holbrooke oversaw weapons shipments to the Indonesian military as it killed a third of East Timor’s population. In 1980, he played a key role in the Carter administration’s support for a South Korean military crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju that killed hundreds of people. Details of Holbrooke’s role in East Timor and Korea have been entirely ignored by the corporate media since his death — hardly covered before, as well. Richard Holbrooke was also a prominent Democratic backer of the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I think Saddam has to be dealt with, and I would support an international coalition of the willing to deal with it. The fact is that we all can agree that Saddam is a truly terrible chief of state and is in the process of trying to create — and we don’t know how well he’s done, because the inspectors have been gone for over three years — trying to create weapons of mass destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the legacy of Richard Holbrooke, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, and again, staying with us, John Pilger is with us in London. Jeremy Scahill, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute, author of the Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. In 1999 he reported daily from Yugoslavia during and after the 78-day NATO bombing. John Pilger is a longtime journalist and filmmaker who has reported extensively on the U.S.-backed Indonesian attack on East Timor, reported extensively on Iraq and Vietnam and Cambodia and many other places.

Jeremy, as we’re coming out of this clip of Richard Holbrooke supporting the Bush administration’s war on Iraq.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, first of all, I mean, Richard Holbrooke, probably more than any U.S. diplomat since Henry Kissinger — and he cut his teeth, of course, during the Vietnam War working under Henry Kissinger — Richard Holbrooke has represented the utter militarization of what is called U.S. diplomacy. He was also at the center of the nexus of U.S. militarists, of aggressive, hawkish, quote-unquote, “diplomats,” and the elite, white-shoe media culture. And that’s why you see people like Joe Klein and others falling over themselves to engage in revisionist history about Richard Holbrooke. They only tell one part of the story. And often, in the case of Iraq or Yugoslavia, they’re telling a very one-sided version of history that makes Richard Holbrooke look like something that he wasn’t, and that was a peacemaker. He was a war maker and was someone who extended the tentacles of U.S. foreign policy.

Under the Clinton administration, Holbrooke was sort of the hammer when it came to diplomacy, as he’s been, in a way, under President Obama, though we’ll get to that later with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let’s remember, when we’re talking about Iraq, Richard Holbrooke wasn’t just speaking as some pundit when he was supporting the Bush administration’s lie-laden case for war in Iraq. He also promoted the idea that Saddam posed a threat with weapons of mass destruction, Richard Holbrooke. But during the Clinton administration, there were the most ruthless economic sanctions in history imposed by the Democrats on the government — or rather, the people — of Iraq, that just targeted the civilian population, denied food and medicine, turned the hospitals of Iraq — and John Pilger knows about this better than anyone, because he did the definitive film on it — turned the hospitals of Iraq into death rows for infants. So, you know, Richard Holbrooke was part of an administration that also bombed Baghdad on multiple occasions in the north and the south of the country, as well, under the guise of the no-fly zones.

AMY GOODMAN: This was during Clinton’s years.

JEREMY SCAHILL: And this was during the Clinton administration. So then, when you fast-forward to the Bush fraudulent case for war, having someone like Richard Holbrooke support it is the embodiment of the continuity of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. Clinton started the war on Iraq in full after George H.W. Bush invaded and attacked Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and it’s been consistent U.S. policy. And Richard Holbrooke has been a staple of that policy — was a staple of that policy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back in time. I’ve been to East Timor a number of times during the Indonesian occupation, one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. John Pilger also did a remarkable documentary about it called Death of a Nation. East Timor is a place that was occupied by the fourth-largest military in the world, Indonesia. And it started under Ford and Kissinger and went on to Carter, and Holbrooke was in that administration. A third of the population was killed. In 1997, investigative journalist Allan Nairn went to Brown University, where Richard Holbrooke was speaking, and he questioned him about East Timor.

ALLAN NAIRN: You were the Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration at the height of the genocide in Timor, the years of '76, ’77, ’78, ’79, when the killing rose to a peak. And you were the Carter administration's point man on Timor policy. You handled the testimony before Congress and so on. And it was under your watch that the U.S. sent in the OV-10 Bronco planes, the low-flying planes, which were used to bomb and strafe the Timorese out of the hills. Testimony from Catholic Church sources, reports from Amnesty International and others indicated that hundreds of thousands of East Timorese were killed during this period. And during this period, not only was the U.S. sending in these weapons which were used to kill the Timorese, but it was also blocking the U.N. Security Council from taking enforcement action on the two resolutions which called on Indonesia to withdraw its troops without delay. We know this because Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., wrote about it in his memoirs. That was the policy that started under Ford and Kissinger, OK, and you continued that policy.

So, I have two questions. The first is, would you be willing to facilitate the full declassification of documents regarding what the Carter administration, your administration, did in East Timor by granting a waiver under the Privacy Act? And secondly, would you favor the convening, for the case of East Timor, an international war crimes tribunal along the lines of what has been done in Bosnia and Rwanda, along the lines of what President Bush called for in the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? And would you be willing to abide by its verdict in regard to your own conduct?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You know, first of all, we’re not going to have time to deconstruct your question and take it on point by point here. We’ve got other questions, and we need to get to them. But let me say very clearly, first of all, I don’t accept every statement you have just made as fact. Far from it. Moynihan, for example, was not the ambassador during the Carter administration; he was the ambassador during the previous administration.

ALLAN NAIRN: He started it under Ford, and you continued that policy.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Let’s not — I don’t think we’re going to have time to deconstruct this here. I do not accept most of your statements. However, in regard to the last questions, of course I favor declassification. I have no — I have nothing to hide about my own role. If I made a mistake or two along the way, I’ll confront it when that goes —- when that comes up. No one is error-free here. But just for the purpose of everyone else in the room, this is not an accurate description of the administration’s policy or my own role in it. As I said in my opening remarks, Indonesia was an important country and remains an important country. And the solution to the problem, as I said to an earlier question, does not, in my view, involve a complete arms cut off. You’re welcome to disagree. But I am interested in consequences of policy. I’m interested in solving the problem. And not -—

ALLAN NAIRN: The consequences in this case were genocide: a third of the Timorese population killed.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: If you want to accuse me of genocide, you’re welcome to do so. And if — as far as extending the war crimes tribunal to Timor, or for that matter, Cambodia, where it’s incomprehensibly not of a mandate, I’m all for it. In fact, I have recently written a letter to the Holocaust Commission at the museum recommending that they take this issue on, precisely because it’s incomprehensible to me why various people who are equally as murderous as Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic have never been investigated. But I tell you here, for the benefit of everyone else, that the Timor issue is not as simple as described just now. It just isn’t. This is not what happened, and I don’t think anyone who knows Jimmy Carter or what he stands for would agree that this was a deliberate policy of giving low-flying airplanes or helicopters to the Indonesians so that they could go out and kill people in the hills.

AMY GOODMAN: That was [Richard] Holbrooke responding to journalist Allan Nairn. John Pilger, I want to play a clip from your 1994 film Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. This is a clip of José Ramos-Horta, then foreign minister in exile of East Timor, who is now the president of East Timor. He describes a bombing with a U.S.-supplied OV-10 Bronco plane in 1977, when Richard Holbrooke was Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration.

JOSÉ RAMOS-HORTA: As the months went by, the war went on. One of my sisters, Maria Ortencia, by then 17 years old in 1977, was killed during an air raid carried out by the Indonesian air force using a Bronco aircraft. Two American-supplied Bronco aircraft nose-dived to a village somewhere in the remote countryside and opened fire on the village. At that particular moment, there were no guerrilla troops there, only civilian population. My sister was there. She was running the local school. She and 20 kids, at least, were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was José Ramos-Horta, who became a close friend, by the way, of Richard Holbrooke. John Pilger, your response?

JOHN PILGER: Well, look, Richard Holbrooke is the embodiment of rapacious U.S. policy. And I think there’s something interesting here in the — all the commemoration of his career that has gone on, interesting in regard to the WikiLeaks issue, because here we have — and it’s not only in the United States, it’s here, as well: “This great peacemaker, this great statesman, has passed on.” Well, that’s just not true. And if we’d had a kind of WikiLeaks glimpse of the truth of Holbrooke’s career, we might not be getting all these effusions at the moment.

Just going back a little bit earlier in my experience, Amy, then I would bring it up to East Timor, but my first knowledge of Richard Holbrooke’s involvement was when the foreign minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Co Thach, in 1978 told me in confidence — Thach is now dead, so I’m sure I can speak about this — he told me that Holbrooke, in 1978, had given him assurances that the administration, of which he was a leading member, of course, at the time, the Carter administration, would, if not normalize with Vietnam, then it would lift the siege. And it was an economic siege, an embargo. A Trading with the Enemy Act was the being imposed on the Vietnamese. There was terrible hardship and starvation in Vietnam, all of it a policy of revenge for expelling the Americans, three years later. Holbrooke had said to Thach, who was — they met together in New York in 1978, and Holbrooke had told him to wait for a call. And Thach said, “I waited in the Holiday Inn on, I think, West 42nd Street for four days, waiting for a call from Holbrooke, which he had promised to let me have and to describe the new policy towards Vietnam. And it never came. He refused to answer my messages.” And the imposition of extreme austerity as a policy of revenge continued. That always seemed to me to sum up the kind of duplicitous nature of Holbrooke’s role.

Certainly, as you rightly described — and it’s very interesting listening to Allan Nairn’s excellent questioning of Holbrooke there. I mean, I was told by the senior CIA official in the embassy in Jakarta at the time — Philip Liechty appears in my film — of the kind of support that the regime in Jakarta was getting of aircraft, logistics, Broncos, logistics, armaments, all kinds of support, that were going directly — directly into East Timor, in spite of public declarations by the likes of Holbrooke that this was not happening.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to fast-forward —

JOHN PILGER: So, as Liechty made clear —

AMY GOODMAN: John, because we just have two minutes and we have so many areas to cover, I wanted to fast-forward to Yugoslavia —


AMY GOODMAN: — where, Jeremy, you lived and covered for years. Talk about your experience.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, Richard Holbrooke was a central player in the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Everyone knows. The whole world knows. Slobodan Miloševic was a mass murderer and a thug. Radovan Karadžic, Ratko Mladic, all of these Bosnian Serb leaders, they were thugs. What never gets talked about is that what Richard Holbrooke and other U.S. officials were doing was supporting Croatian ethnic cleansers that were trained by U.S. private military company MPRI to engage in the single-greatest ethnic cleansing of the war against the Serbs in Krajina.

Then you fast-forward to later in the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke was a key player in essentially providing a false pretext for war over Kosovo against Slobodan Miloševic, known as the Rambouillet Accord. The U.S. essentially said to Slobodan Miloševic, “If you don’t sign an agreement that would allow us to occupy your country, allow you to take control of your media outlets, allow our forces to be immunized from prosecution in your country, we are going to bomb you.” Richard Holbrooke delivered that ultimatum to Slobodan Miloševic following the Rambouillet discussion. Miloševic, like any leader in the world, rejected an occupation agreement, and so the United States bombed. Holbrooke, when you and I questioned him later at the Overseas Press Club in April of 1999, denied that he had ever said that that was [not] an occupation agreement, when in fact he had said it on Charlie Rose’s show.

At that same event where you and I confronted Richard Holbrooke, the Overseas Press Club Award, he celebrated the bombing of Radio Television Serbia, after Eason Jordan, the president of CNN International, told him it had been bombed. And he said that it was a positive development. On a night when they were honoring foreign correspondents, Richard Holbrooke was praising the outright murder of media workers — 16 media workers, including make-up artists and engineers — none of Miloševic’s propagandists killed. RTS was not taken off the air. It was a war crime according to Amnesty International, and praised by Richard Holbrooke. To me, that’s the embodiment of what his career has meant in terms of its projection of U.S. power around the world. There are good victims and bad victims; the media workers of Radio Television Serbia, they deserved to die that day, but the journalists of the United States or China or North Korea who get imprisoned in foreign countries, those are worthy victims. The same can be said about the way the U.S. prosecuted its war in Yugoslavia and in Iraq, Turkey with the Kurds, Richard Holbrooke at the center of it for his whole career.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a very critical analysis, Jeremy Scahill, John Pilger. I want to thank you both.

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The Democrats & Suharto: Bill Clinton & Richard Holbrooke Questioned on Their Support for Brutal Indonesian Dictatorship

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