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Holbrooke lobbying to be secretary of State

November 18, 2008|Paul Richter | Richter is a writer in The Times Washington Bureau.

WASHINGTON — Former Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke negotiated an end to a Balkan war, helped normalize relations with China and advanced American interests as envoy to the United Nations.

But now he faces a diplomatic test like none before: persuading President-elect Barack Obama and his team to give him the prized job of secretary of State.

Holbrooke is among those under consideration to be America's top diplomat. Known as the "Bulldozer" and the "Raging Bull," Holbrooke -- a 34-year foreign service veteran -- has a negotiating tenacity that is beyond dispute.

But this most recent task is a challenge because of Holbrooke's history of conflict with core members of Obama's foreign policy team. In addition, some liberal Obama supporters, fretting that leading candidates for his Cabinet seem too centrist, believe Holbrooke is too much of a hawk for the job.

The depth of the conflict was underscored when Holbrooke's prospects improved last summer, said close campaign observers. Some of Obama's advisors "began saying: 'We've got to stop Holbrooke! We've got to stop Holbrooke!' " said Steve Clemons, a foreign policy analyst at the New America Foundation. "He's the guy they fear the most."

Holbrooke was among Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's inner circle during her presidential campaign. Last year, as Obama began assembling his own foreign policy team, Holbrooke called members of the group and others thinking of joining and warned them that it could hurt their future job prospects, said several advisors.

Holbrooke already had strained ties with the senior member of Obama's team, Anthony Lake, former national security advisor to President Clinton. The two men had been best friends but had a falling out in the early days of the Clinton administration, when the new president made Lake his national security advisor and gave Holbrooke the lesser post of ambassador to Germany.

Holbrooke also had clashed with a second member of Obama's original foreign policy triumvirate, former deputy national security advisor Susan Rice. Rice believed Holbrooke had a condescending view toward her in the Clinton years, say people who know the pair.

Holbrooke didn't respond to requests for comment. The Obama team has asked advisors not to talk to the press during the transition period, so those who spoke did so on condition of anonymity.

Last spring, when Sen. Clinton's campaign ended, some Obama advisors predicted that their team would welcome her onetime aides. But they did not expect Holbrooke to win the job he wanted. Nevertheless, Holbrooke began campaigning hard for the post, said Obama advisors. He helped raise money for Obama, offered him advice, and argued his case in articles and on cable news shows. One article was headlined: "Why the Nation and the World Needs Barack Obama."

Holbrooke reportedly is being considered along with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.); retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander; Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.); Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.); and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The situation with Holbrooke underscores the predicament Obama faces in picking his national security team.

As an untested president, Obama wants national security aides who are respected and experienced. But some of the candidates carry baggage. As the standard-bearer of the call for change, he doesn't want the team to be dominated by recycled Clinton lieutenants.

Some Obama advisors say Holbrooke is just who Obama needs as he tries to wind down the Iraq war, refocus the flagging effort in Afghanistan and restore relations with Russia.

"He's a guy who gets things done," said Peter W. Galbraith, who was U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration.

"I wouldn't count Holbrooke out," said another Obama foreign policy advisor. "Obama's first goal is to have talented people around him."

Holbrooke originally supported the Iraq invasion but has criticized the handling of the war. Some liberal bloggers have denounced him as a neoconservative for his stance, while elsewhere he's been called a "liberal hawk."

Holbrooke, U.N. ambassador from 1999-2001, was chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. He flew to Belgrade in 1999 to deliver the final ultimatum to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic before NATO bombed Serbia to halt the conflict in Kosovo. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times.

Holbrooke is vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a New York-based private equity company, and is active in efforts to fight disease and poverty abroad.

There also has been discussion of a senior intelligence post for Holbrooke. And some Obama team members have raised the possibility that Holbrooke might be named a high-level envoy for Iraq and Afghanistan -- an assignment that could impinge on the secretary of State's duties.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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