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Diplomat Gone Rogue

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Left: In Afghanistan with the mujaheddin, 1989; Right: Visiting the site of a plane crash in Croatia that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, 1996.  

Then, on MSNBC this spring to discuss Karzai, Galbraith appeared to accuse the Afghan president of being an opium addict. “Well, he’s prone to tirades,” Galbraith explained. “He can be very emotional. Act impulsively. In fact, some of the palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports.”

The hosts were bewildered. “So you’re saying he’s got his own substance-abuse problem,” one ventured.

“There are, there are reports to that effect. But whatever the cause is, the reality is that he can be very emotional.”

By early September, when I visited Galbraith in Vermont, this fierce unspooling had seemed to come to a momentary rest, and he had entered what is for him a more subdued kind of retirement. He is writing a book about Afghanistan and Pakistan and has begun an unlikely political career, running for a seat in the Vermont State Senate that he is expected to win. But he remains fixated on his dismissal from the U.N., and has filed a claim challenging its legitimacy.

As the mission in Afghanistan has grown only more grim, Galbraith has reacquired some of his old reputation as a truth-teller. “Peter was the boy who said, ‘Hang on a minute, the emperor’s actually stark naked,’ ” says Margie Cook, an Australian who was the U.N.’s chief electoral adviser in Kabul. “And when he did that, the whole edifice collapsed.”

Galbraith’s understanding is even grander. “These fraudulent elections set back the international community’s mission in Afghanistan enormously,” he says. “It basically eliminated whatever chance there might have been to accomplish President Obama’s strategy. The fraud in the elections—and, frankly, the U.N.’s complicity—are literally killing American soldiers.”

That Galbraith would assign himself such a central role in the history of Afghanistan is not surprising to his peers. Like his sometime ally Richard Holbrooke, he has a reputation for liberal vanity—and the conviction that he can see clarity in political affairs where others see only a muddle. “Unlike Peter,” says one U.S. diplomat involved in the elections in Kabul, “I don’t assume things are important just because I’m part of them.”

And yet for this principle Galbraith sacrificed his career. Later this fall, a U.N. tribunal will hear his appeal. Its narrow claim is that he was fired unfairly, but Galbraith’s filings make clear that he will use the hearing to argue a broader point: that he was right about Afghanistan, and the U.N. and the Americans were wrong; and that the Westerners, gazing into the region’s murky politics, have insisted on seeing moral ambiguity where in fact the blacks and whites are perfectly stark.

Galbraith has long believed that the most difficult problems in American foreign policy can be solved by embracing moral principles rather than shirking them. And so there is another question embedded in Galbraith’s case, too: whether this approach could fix the broken adventure in Afghanistan, or whether, in the aftermath of the wars of the last decade, it is a naïve anachronism.

Peter Galbraith seemed, to the U.N. officials who hired him, a particularly American kind of headache. At the beginning of 2009, Richard Holbrooke had just been appointed Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he had urged Ban Ki-moon to appoint Galbraith in Kabul. The man for whom Galbraith would be working in Afghanistan was a Norwegian diplomat named Kai Eide, an old friend of Galbraith’s but an equally strong, rivalrous personality. The U.N. couldn’t really say no to Holbrooke—the State Department usually gets what it wants. But there was intense trepidation. “If you appoint Peter Galbraith and Kai Eide together,” one of Ban Ki-moon’s closest advisers told the secretary-general, “it will end in tears.” But by June, the two were working side by side.

The aspect of Galbraith that stays with you is his fixed, almost physical focus. He is married now (for the second time), but when he was younger, he was enough of a ladies’ man that, when he once antagonized the CIA station chief in Zagreb, the spook listed all of Galbraith’s liaisons in a dispatch back to Washington. (“They were all adult, none of them working for the U.S., so it was none of his goddamn business,” Galbraith says.) He has a medium build and a flop of dark hair across his forehead, and he would scan as preppy if he took any notice of style at all; as it is, he comes across as a guy who has always believed he had the preppies’ measure. There are “difficult aspects to his personality—he can sometimes be abrasive,” says his brother Jamie Galbraith, a prominent liberal economist at the University of Texas. “It doesn’t yield him anything to climb the organizational ladder. The question for him is how do you get what you want.”


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