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Richard Holbrooke

In the torrent of material about Richard Holbrooke, I especially liked the following. The PBS Newshour discussion between John Negroponte (who had known Holbrooke and worked with him when they were in their twenties) and Susan Glasser (editor of Foreign Policy, a job Holbrooke once had). Jonathan Alter's glowing and affecting tribute for the Daily Beast. David Ignatius's note for the WashPo website, which mentions the drawbacks to Holbrooke as though they mattered, but without being mean about it, a difficult balance to strike. Michael Hirsh's appreciation for National Journal. National Journal's James Kitfield also did an excellent piece focusing on Holbrooke's last and most difficult job, which was not going well (this one is behind a paywall).


My own favorite memory of him dates from the 1990s, when he famously tongue-lashed Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. I was with him the night in 1995 when he returned to New York from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, after brokering a peace agreement between warring factions in Bosnia. This was the greatest American diplomatic triumph in years (and arguably hasn't been equaled since). Holbrooke was practically carried into an International Rescue Committee banquet on a litter. Huzzahs all around.

I wanted to know the secret of the breakthrough. He explained to me in the car over to Nightline how, after the talks broke down, he instructed the U.S. delegates to leave their luggage curbside so that the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats would think the U.S. was departing. That would have meant a humiliating defeat for all sides. The brilliant bluff worked and the parties returned to the table.

But instead of savoring the triumph, which many foreign-policy analysts believed should have led to a Nobel Peace Prize, Holbrooke was berating me for a negative article that someone else had written about him in Newsweek. The histrionics continued as he got out of the car, went into makeup and sat down to talk to Ted Koppel. I had to admire the multitasking.

Ignatius [having previously emphasised Holbrooke's energy and forcefulness]:

But he offended too many of the smaller and more particular people he needed to work with, in the Obama administration and abroad. He clashed famously with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who not entirely without reason thought that Holbrooke wanted him out, as well as with various other personalities in Afghanistan. Pretty soon, it became difficult for the Af-Pak negotiator to spend much productive time in Af-Pak, which wasn't good. He made an effort to throttle back that magnificent personality -- trying not to give too many interviews, trying not to be a dominating presence. It was a hopeless task, like trying to bottle lightning. If he saw something that offended or appealed to him, Holbrooke could not keep his mouth shut.


Holbrooke was, paradoxically, a passionate idealist and the ultimate pragmatist at the same time... 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.


Whether he was perceived as brilliant and determined or intellectually prickly and brusque often depended on whose arm was about to be twisted when he entered the room. In his last diplomatic role as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, Holbrooke was becoming the one thing no one could have predicted based on his long career: marginalized.

That Holbrooke saw his influence ebb on major policy matters almost certainly says more about the job he was given by President Obama, and about the enormous challenges he and others inherited in Afghanistan and Pakistan, than it does about the skills of one of the pre-eminent diplomats of his generation. Holbrooke's inability to embody the role of civilian "czar" or point man on "Af-Pak" policy also raises questions about the future role of the SRAP organization itself.

Many of the obituaries mention that he once wanted to be a journalist. He would have been a good one: curiosity, ego and abrasiveness (more with peers and superiors than with underlings, as admirable as it is rare) fit him well for the role. He certainly seemed to enjoy their company. I was struck by how many of the tribute writers say they had supped with him in recent days, or were imminently planning to. "Inside the Obama administration, he suffered for consorting too much with reporters," says Alter. "As it happened, Holbrooke was scheduled to have lunch with me that day at the Hay-Adams Hotel."

Holbrooke's drive and "magnificent personality", as Ignatius calls it, were in many ways quintessentially American. Alter's piece is aptly called "An American in Full". The admiration that many liberals have for the man makes one wonder about their earlier praise for Obama's diplomatic temperament--unstrident, self-deprecating, willing to listen, and emphatically not a caricature American like his predecessor. How terribly important those virtues were said to be. Of course, Holbrooke worked for Democratic administrations; he was a bully for liberal causes. Still, I wonder how much his style of diplomacy would have been admired by liberals had he been a neocon. "Well, I question his aims, but you have to admire his assumption that he and America know best, his disdain for diplomatic courtesies, and the way he tramples down those who disagree."