Share this article

print logo

Holbrooke's death leaves a serious void

Charles de Gaulle, who famously said the graveyards are filled with indispensable men, was wrong. Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was that rare indispensable man.

Holbrooke, who died Dec. 13 of a shattered aorta at age 69, was President Obama's envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was the most innovative and successful U.S. diplomat of the last half-century.

In Washington, a town full of larger-than-life figures, few equaled Holbrooke: He was brilliant, egotistical, loyal, strategic, charming, manipulative, caring, demanding, compassionate and funny, sometimes all in the same conversation. He was a force like no other.

Although now familiar, his career is worth briefly recapping.

A senior at Brown University in 1962, he couldn't decide whether to be executive editor of the New York Times or secretary of state. When the Times turned him down for a job, he joined the Foreign Service. He served in Vietnam and was a special aide to two ambassadors. Back in Washington, he became an adviser to the U.S. president, and wrote a chapter of the historic Pentagon Papers chronicling the history of the Vietnam War. He was still in his 20s.

He then directed the Peace Corps in Morocco and was editor of Foreign Policy magazine. He tried his hand at business and finance, working at Lehman Brothers Holdings, Credit Suisse Group and a private-equity firm, though as one of his bosses recalled, other than the bonuses, it didn't turn him on; Holbrooke's abiding passion was government and public service, particularly foreign policy.

In the Carter administration he was assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, helping to broker diplomatic relations with China.

When President Bill Clinton was elected, Holbrooke wanted to be ambassador to Japan but settled for Germany. Although he was in that post less than a year, almost two decades later, few Americans are more respected there. He founded the American Academy in Berlin, which in only a decade and a half has elevated the cultural and educational exchanges between Germany and the United States.

His most legendary achievement was the 1995 Bosnian peace accords brokered at Dayton, Ohio, where his combination of skill, ruthless toughness, patience, persuasiveness and perseverance forced some thugs to back down, stopping the genocide and saving thousands of lives. It's difficult to imagine another diplomat who could have pulled this off.

At the end of the Clinton administration, he became the most formidable ambassador to the United Nations in modern memory. He persuaded Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative, to support crucial U.S. funding for the international organization, and remarkably helped persuade the North Carolina Republican to switch his position and support international AIDS-prevention efforts. (Helms, who had been a vocal opponent, had a farewell session for Holbrooke when he left the United Nations; the ambassador received a standing ovation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Helms chaired.)

The dispossessed -- AIDS sufferers, refugees, victims of repressive regimes -- had few more passionate champions than Holbrooke. He was a perpetual profile in courage, often risking his life on missions from the Balkans to Asia.

He was no saint. He had as many detractors as supporters. He could be brutal and insensitively vain. In Holbrooke's most recent job, both the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and his aides, as well as functionaries in Obama's White House and National Security Council, sniped incessantly at the ambassador. They thought he treated them as substantive inferiors; they were. He took issue with references to his huge ego. Once, when I wrote about this trait, I likened it to a Texan saying that "it ain't bragging if you can do it." Holbrooke wanted to know which Texan said that.

The ambassador, a title he enjoyed, was comfortable in settings as diverse as Manhattan salons, dinners with leading political, business and human-rights advocates in world capitals, journalistic groupies in Washington or refugee camps.

The stories over the past week that depict the tragedy of his inability to ever become secretary of state miss the point. He might have been another George C. Marshall; very few, however, who achieved that position had Holbrooke's record of triumphs that so affected people's lives.

To the end he was a calculating, tough-minded, pragmatic idealist who deeply believed that America -- mistakes like Vietnam and Iraq notwithstanding -- is the best hope of the world and has an obligation to fulfill that mission.

Dick Holbrooke was a true patriot.

There are no comments - be the first to comment