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President Barack Obama hailed Richard Holbrooke, who died Monday, as "one of the giants of American foreign policy." The President's kudos reflected the Establishment gravitas that Holbrooke, the special envoy overseeing U.S. policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had acquired in his long career -- fact and reason to the contrary.
Apologies to those who think it is boorish to speak in anything but the most glowing terms of dead "giants." In this case, however, the stakes are so high that it will dishonor all those at risk, if we yield to convenient convention.
There will be many more dead and wounded in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the time you read this. Sadly, Holbrooke is one of the Establishment "giants" responsible.
The esteemed Holbrooke, who died from a ruptured aorta at the age of 69, has already garnered much praise and attention. Do those to be killed and wounded today in "Af-Pak" -- many much closer to the beginning of their lives -- also merit some mention?
To paraphrase what Arthur Miller says of his simple salesman, such people can be just as exhausted -- just as dead -- as giants. The "small" must not be allowed to fall into the grave like old dogs. Attention, attention must finally be paid.
"Bulldozers" (the Establishment's admiring word for bullies and one of Holbrooke's favorite nicknames) must not be allowed to push dirt onto those graves and cover them up, as though they do not matter.
The "giant" term also recalls images from the past -- ironic ones. On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon justified invading Cambodia with these words:
"If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."
With all the drama he could muster, Nixon warned, "It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight. The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace?"
And so the American "bulldozer" invaded Cambodia. And we know how that turned out. Nixon failed to defeat the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong but did destabilize Cambodia, opening the door for a victory several years later by the ruthless Khmer Rouge.
After Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, as massive anti-war protests swept across the United States, his image of a powerful giant faded into a pitiable Gulliver, tied down into helplessness by millions of "small" Vietnamese and "small" Americans, too. It is a safe bet that the Afghans are now collecting the rope needed for a similar feat.
Witness to a Debacle
Richard Holbrooke should have had an even clearer recollection of the Vietnam debacle than most Americans. He watched much of it unfold firsthand but apparently never protested the folly, at least not strenuously enough to damage his career advancement.
Holbrooke was a history major at Brown in April 1961, when President John Kennedy received a fateful warning from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The then-retired general, who had commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II and battled the Chinese in the Korean War, warned Kennedy: "Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined."
When younger active-duty military commanders suggested that cowardice was behind Kennedy's decision to pursue negotiations rather than send reinforcements into a civil war in Laos, the young President would tell them to go convince Gen. MacArthur first.