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."
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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.