A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals worldwide. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan. … Mr. Holbrooke’s expansive career began in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where he served as a field officer, and included appointments as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state in U.S. history. When Republicans were in power, he was a banker, a journalist and a best-selling author. His most prominent role was as a presidential wartime problem solver, to which Mr. Holbrooke applied an unwavering energy, a flair for diplomatic improvisation and a hard-charging style that could yield dramatic breakthroughs but also generate bitterness and enmity, even among his American teammates. Although the consequences of his forceful personality were laid bare in his efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to tense disagreements with leaders of those nations and fellow U.S. officials, Mr. Holbrooke never stopped trying to address the insurgencies that threaten both countries. … – Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The quote is from Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose article on the tenaciously combustible Richard Holbrooke gives you an idea of the life he lead. Author of parts of the Pentagon Papers, Holbrooke was the architect of peace in the Balkins, as well as Pres. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and served under four presidents going back to John F. Kennedy. Sect. of State Hillary Clinton called Mr. Holbrooke one of America’s “fiercest champions.”
Mr. Holbrooke’s countenance in the press always seemed set to permanently perturbed, so that when you saw him laughing it looked like a welcomed unleashing. At least that’s how it looked from the outside.
Following Mr. Holbrooke’s diplomatic career was like living a vicarious dream. The craft of diplomacy has always been a curiosity to me, likely because I grew up in the heat of Vietnam. It’s a war that left an impact on everyone who lived through it or was touched by the people who fought it, dodged it or tried to help the nation maneuver through it.
I got the pleasure of not only meeting him, but speaking with him one night about Afghanistan, which gave me a very tiny glimpse of the force that was Richard Holbrooke. It was an event at New America Foundation, with my friend Steve Clemons as host. Mr. Holbrooke’s wife, who is a board member of NAF, Kati Marton, is a firebrand intellectual I only saw in action once, when during another NAF event she took apart Flynt Leverett on something he was saying about Iran. The flash of passion and rhetorical heat from her seemed a kindred lash equal to something her husband might also deliver. It was through Ms. Marton’s book event at NAF back in October 2009 where I met her husband.
It was during a time when a kerfuffle was brewing in the press about a visit Sen. John Kerry had just made to Afghanistan, which didn’t include Special Envoy Holbrooke. He was standing with Steve Coll, Cliff May and a small group, including myself, and at one point when he learned I was a political writer he engaged me on the subject of Sen. Kerry. From the report I wrote back in October 2009:
“Our involvement in Pakistan is not altruistic, it’s strategic,” Holbrooke reminded May. When May continued, talking about the Pakistanis not being very happy with the aid package, Holbrooke pressed a question a couple of times. “You know who started that?” May didn’t answer. Holbrooke repeated the question, then added, “the military.” With much of what’s going on in Pakistan having to do with internal politics as much as anything else, Holbrooke also mentioned briefly his long friendship with ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as well as the internal dynamics of the stretched tensions in Pakistan.
I asked Mr. Holbrooke whether he believed the Afghan winter would impact the runoff election. That started a monologue that would last around ten minutes. Once the runoff of Nov. 7th happens, Holbrooke said there is about a two week envelope, with the winter’s impact in the north, thus the Tajiks. (Abdullah is Tajik and is from the north; Karzai a Pashtun from the south.) Continuing, he said that we got Karzai to agree to the runoff “by the skin” of our teeth, by “this much,” changing metaphors and holding up two fingers to show less than an inch. “Of course, we got it,” but it was very close, he added.
Then I interjected another question, starting with “John Kerry–“, with Holbrooke interrupting me immediately, saying “Can’t say enough about John Kerry.” … Holbrooke continued heaping praise on Sen. Kerry, stating what had already been reported about Kerry meeting with Obama after he got back. Holbrooke talking about all the serious work he’d been doing in the area and how long it had been going on, with everyone working in concert. Holbrooke, Secretary Clinton and Amb. Eikenberry also had a 40 minute conversation with Kerry as well.
At one point he added that he’d seen a caption, he believed on CNN, that said “Ambassador Kerry?”, then chuckled. Now, some would have tried to construe this as a snide aside, however, Holbrooke was obviously making a good-natured comment about Kerry’s diligent efforts, while also making the point of how everyone worked different angles together. To add, today Politico has a piece on Secretary Clinton’s vital role in giving Sen. Kerry the Afghan mission and spotlight.
“The Administration worked seamlessly on this,” Holbrooke added, nodding his head.
The interchange, however small, is one that meant something to me, because the work he did was so important and looking in on it for so very many years I respect it tremendously.
There have been countless articles written by front line foreign policy writers about Mr. Holbrooke, so there are no illusions as to his rambunctiously bombastic style. Needless to say he’s not everyone’s favorite guy.
“He’s the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” Vice President-elect Biden told President-elect Obama. From what I know through others few would disagree.
I guess it’s a quality that helps when you’re doing the diplomatic work of the angels in a militaristic world.
“If you’re not on the team and you’re in his way, God help you.” – Pres. Obama (quoting one of Richard Holbrooke’s friends and admirers)
(This essay was bumped from 12.13)