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 December 14, 2010 12:18 PM | TrackBack (0)

Thought you might have something to say here about Richard Holbrooke. Good to have your voice.

Agree with him or not, he got things done. Important things.

Was hoping to hear your take on, "As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." "

Best regards.

Posted by: Adams at December 14, 2010 01:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

thx for your note adams. i purposefully didn't want to risk 'politicizing' this remembrance, thus why i steered clear of the quote you mention (that i've also seen reported). best i can tell (and i have been tremendously busy of late so haven't monitored w/ great closeness), holbrooke continued to fundamentally support the afghan effort, whatever his doubts (public and/or private), differentiating the Afghan War from Vietnam for instance, and among other reasons, on the grounds of 9/11 and the possibility of further attacks being plotted from there. I've said my bit on this logic over the years, and didn't want to re-legislate it today, given the man's passing. i also didn't know the precise context: a message to the Pakistanis said half in jest to a surgeon who happened to be of Pakistani descent(?), a more philosophical overarching statement(?), other?, so regardless would have wanted to traipse carefully. I hope this is clear, and appreciate your comment.

Posted by: Greg Djerejian at December 14, 2010 02:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Crystal, and your reluctance to speculate now very understandable.

Posted by: Adams at December 14, 2010 04:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thank you for the article.
As an aside, now you know that some people have bookmarked you and every day, like Hachiko at Shibuya, visit your site with the hope that you have returned. It is too bad that the death of Richard Holbrooke had to bring back the pleasure of reading you though, and i am one of many who hope that you will find in the future the time to write more often.

Posted by: jean-paul at December 17, 2010 05:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

jean-paul: thx for your generous note, & the hachiko reference elicited a chuckle. i do owe readers (past and any remaining ones!) something by way of an update, the bottom line is work has been extremely demanding (to include highly frequent trips to asia). along w/ a young family and other pressing matters the hours simply haven't been avail to post here (that said, 2011 could provide greater windows here and there, although this is not certain). in any event, thx again for your note, and i will try to post a more general update soon. the only other factor i'd note is i must confess the 'blogosphere' (if we can still call it that) has become less intimate than back in its nascent iterations of the early 2000s, a bit more 'corporate' and such, somehow this makes one on occasion less desirous (assuming there was the time) of penning posts...

Posted by: Greg Djerejian at December 18, 2010 11:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How about a year-end summary? Or some comments on the new START treaty?

Posted by: DRS at December 21, 2010 11:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

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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