December 14, 2010

Richard Holbrooke: A Life in Diplomacy


It is with genuine sadness that I wanted to briefly make note of Richard Holbrooke's death. When I first heard of the tear in his aorta, I feared the worst, indefatigable as he is (it's hard to write "was") and knowing full well he'd doubtless put up a valiant fight. Still, it seemed the 'Bulldozer' had taxed himself too hard this last time given his advancing age, marathon work days, and incessant travel to what has come to be called (inappropriately, in my view) 'Af-Pak'.

I can almost picture the scene where, turning blush red, he would have very much been wanting to make just one last point to Hillary Clinton on the 7th Floor at the State Department, with her instead wisely ordering him into the elevator to get rushed to the hospital. A passionate and tireless advocate, he blocked and tackled to the very end, in service to his country.

I was already well familiar with Holbrooke's storied career pre the Dayton Accords, whether getting an Assistant Secretary slot (East Asia) at the ripe age of 35, prior service as Director of the Peace Corps (for Morocco), and his journalistic forays at respected venues like Foreign Policy. But it was as a humanitarian worker between college and graduate school based in the Balkans that I came to develop immense respect for the man. Our policy in Bosnia had been floundering--feckless and directionless--and I saw the resultant human toll first hand, devastating and enough to leave one aghast (the fall of Srebrenica a particularly harrowing low-point).

Finally, and necessarily willing to negotiate with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic (whatever dishonor to his victims the moral quandary of negotiating with him posed was amply alleviated by the opportunity to spare perhaps many more lives looking forward), Holbrooke did what only he could do: push, corral, lecture, hector, harangue, strong-arm, charm, remonstrate, cajole, scream and, yes, generally 'bulldoze' men like Milosevic (needing to bring along Karadzic and Mladic), Franjo Tudgman (with his own maximalist Herzegovian Croats to deal with), and an indecisive and sometimes feuding Alija Izetbegovic and Haris Silajdzic. It was no mean feat, and I believe history will see this dogged and intrepid peacemaking as well more than a footnote, given the wider implications the conflict, if left to its own devices for longer, could well have had for wider European stability (like most deals, this one was imperfect for various stakeholders, and still contains to this day the seeds of future risks, but it was cobbled together with fierce energy and in a manner that has withstood a decade and a half plus).

Richard (or Dick, as his friends knew him) was not one to only partner with ideological bed-fellows. As the Dayton Accords were being hammered out, for instance, he reached out to Richard Perle, knowing the Bosnian Federation (composed of Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks themselves) would require assistance combing through the military annexes of the Accords, as well needing guidance on the 'train and equip' program for Federation forces, a counter-point to Bosnian Serb and rump Yugoslavian military superiority (in today's hyper-polarized and infantilized Washington, such cross-party collaboration even on matters of national security is virtually unheard of). This policy initiative was pursued in the interests of stability, rather than revanchism, an effort I assisted with during a prior career. Holbrooke was a pragmatist, willing to work across ideological divides (knowing Perle could add value in this effort), or to negotiate with people who we didn't like, or more, were noxious and indeed bona fide war criminals (as with Milosevic), if a greater good could be achieved. A complicated man, perhaps with many neo-Wilsonian humanitarian stripes, ultimately I believe he was something of a hard-boiled realist (not in an overly academic or doctrinal way, but certainly possessing a clear-eyed view of the world).

One of the several occasions I was lucky enough to spend time with him I asked if he could write a brief dedication to my copy of his book regarding the Bosnian War, which I had obviously read with great interest: "To End a War". Ever playing to his audience, he scribbled a kind and generous note he knew would flatter a young man who had served in the region, writing in part: "With the knowledge that you will know what's left out of this story". A typical Holbrooke touch, even amidst the cacophony of his manic energy, bluntness, and imperiousness, he made gestures that resonated and I am sure were a helpful component of his overall diplomatic tool-kit. So while I would be remiss not to make mention of his human shortcomings which are the stuff of legend, friends and detractors alike cannot but admit that diplomats of this caliber come rarely indeed, a handful or so per generation. He will be sorely missed. And while I have a different view than was his of the ultimate advisability and strategic rationale underpinning the current war in Afghanistan, regardless, I must note his passing presents yet another set-back to the war effort.

I am told that some of his friends and fans were sending messages his staff were actively collating for him to read when he "woke up", perhaps after the second surgery. It was not to be. Farewell, Ambassador, you did many proud, and your achievements were real. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.

Posted by Gregory at 12:18 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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