Holbrooke: An Appreciation

Right up until the end, he was the old Dick Holbrooke, touchy and vain about his reputation, acutely aware of what the media were saying about him. In an interview with me on December 3, shortly before he fell ill, Holbrooke insisted that his tense relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai had never really gone off the rails, although virtually every pundit in Washington was writing that it had. "I was not the problem," Holbrooke said. "I was carrying out American policy."

That was classic Holbrooke. He was a master of the eloquent and relentless self-defense, which he practiced with every journalist he knew well. But for all his foibles, Richard Holbrooke was also probably the greatest diplomat of his generation, a man passionately devoted to doing whatever he could to further American interests abroad, whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera. Certainly he was the best negotiator of complex, global issues that anyone had seen since Henry Kissinger or Jim Baker, though he never became, like them, secretary of state. It is perhaps the truest measure of just how intractable the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains that even Holbrooke - the fabled "bulldozer" of American diplomacy--had trouble making headway there.

Among those who think that Holbrooke did far more than he is even now credited with in that region--in the final post of a remarkable career--is Pakistan Ambassador Husain Haqqani, who worked closely with Holbrooke in the latter's role as President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke approached the job with a breadth and passion that no one else matched, Haqqani told me shortly before Holbrooke died Monday at the age of 69. "He assembled a huge team. He worked all the issues, he got to know everybody. He understood the culture and environment of the region. This was not a diffident grand design approach. [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai could pick up the phone and talk to him. [Pakistan President] Zardari could just as equally."

Holbrooke was, paradoxically, a passionate idealist and the ultimate pragmatist at the same time. The Washington Post reports his last words, as recounted by his family, were "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." He was willing to negotiate with anyone he thought he could make a peace deal with, from Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic to, most recently, the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. Yet at the same time Holbrooke was, as much as any neoconservative, a fervent believer in the essential goodness of American power. He could be a fierce unilateralist or a deft multilateralist, as the occasion called for.

By the time Barack Obama entered office, he had already become something of a legend in Washington, though the highest official posts he ever held were U.N. ambassador and assistant secretary of State. For most of his Foreign Service career, which dated to the early 1960s and a key part in the Paris Peace Talks of 1968-69, Holbrooke was stymied in his bid for senior-level office, putatively by jealous or mistrustful rivals--especially when it came to his dream post, secretary of sState.

But he was not a man to be denied the spotlight, and during the mid-to-late 1990s Holbrooke finally came into his own. The emerging age of brutal ethnic and tribal conflict cried out for heavy-handed diplomacy, and creative tactics, and everyone recognized that Holbrooke had mastered that to a degree that no one else in the U.S. Foreign Service could match. A kind of diplomatic Green Beret at home in the ethnic jungles of "post-Cold War conflict resolution," as he liked to call it, he was adept at making use of the threat of American force to forge patchwork diplomatic solutions to nearly insoluble problems. And he loved trying the impossible--one reason the Balkans were tailor-made for the man. Yugoslavia began disintegrating in the early '90s in an orgy of self-determination. Bosnian Serbs were slaughtering their Muslim brethren and humiliated U.N. peacekeepers. While the Europeans squabbled among themselves, and Clinton's courtly first-term secretary of state, Warren Christopher, dithered, Clinton raged that he was "getting creamed" in the media. Holbrooke, who had been among the earliest and most passionate advocates of intervention, was given the job of negotiating a solution after NATO bombing sent the Serbs to the bargaining table.

Holbrooke proved especially effective at handling Milosevic, the ruthless Serbian leader who reintroduced genocide (euphemized as "ethnic cleansing") into the European lexicon in the '90s and was the true power behind the Bosnian Serbs. Holbrooke was skilled not only at brass-knuckle negotiations but at the stagecraft of diplomacy. At Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lead negotiator in resolving the Bosnian war in 1995, he escorted Milosevic through a hangar bristling with U.S. planes and missiles at Wright-Patterson Air Base, where the talks were held, to drive home the brute actuality of American might. The Dayton Accord ending that terrible conflict remains intact today, despite many predictions of failure and a still-shaky political situation on the ground.

Three years later, in October 1998, when Milosevic was balking at a deal to stop trying in Kosovo what he'd once done in Bosnia--oppress and kill the Muslim minority--Holbrooke flew to Belgrade with Air Force Gen. Michael Short, the commander who would actually carry out threatened NATO airstrikes. They walked into the palace of Milosevic, who barked out in greeting, "So, general, you're the man who's going to bomb us." Short, a no-nonsense former fighter pilot, responded with a line that Holbrooke had concocted: "Mr. President, I've got U-2s [surveillance planes] in one hand and B-52s in the other. And I will use whichever I'm ordered to ... The choice is yours." Once again, as he had at Dayton, Milosevic settled with Holbrooke--a patchwork deal that lasted until the following year, when Madeleine Albright, an arch-rival of Holbrooke's, took over negotiations. Before Holbrooke, commented Gojko Beric, a Sarajevo political analyst, the Balkans were a "graveyard for diplomats...Nobody had been able to achieve anything."

Later on, after he became U.N. ambassador, Holbrooke directed a brilliant campaign to resolve a standoff between supporters of the United Nations and arch-conservatives on Capitol Hill led by then-Sen. Jesse Helms to de-fund the U.N. Before Holbrooke left office, he gave testimony one last time to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Helms led the Senators in a standing ovation for the indefatigable negotiator.

Holbrooke may have been the last American diplomat to get a standing ovation. It's difficult to imagine there will be many more like him.