Richard Holbrooke: Archetype of American Diplomacy

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Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, left, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrive for a conference at Kabul International Airport on April 11, 2010

As Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was dying Monday of an aortic tear he suffered on Dec. 10, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of America's top diplomats gathered at the State Department for a Christmas party that the 69-year-old veteran envoy was "practically synonymous with American foreign policy" during his lifetime. It is not hard to make the argument. Holbrooke began his professional life as the star of the 1962 class of diplomatic trainees at the State Department, shipped out the following year to South Vietnam. He wrote a volume of the Pentagon Papers and was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace negotiations to end the war. He was the youngest Assistant Secretary of State under Carter, defined Clinton-era foreign policy by negotiating an end to the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, and returned under Obama as America's top diplomat to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But there have been many career diplomats whose lives overlay the most important historical moments of the past half-century: John Negroponte, Anthony Lake, Winston Lord and many other longtime friends and rivals of Holbrooke's also played key roles and influenced events in ways we are still only beginning to learn. What made Holbrooke most memorable — and what lies behind the outpouring of mourning and reminiscence that is sweeping Washington in the wake of his death Monday evening — was his personification of what many at home and abroad imagined U.S. diplomacy to be.

Holbrooke was not just a prominent American diplomat who engaged in some of the most consequential international events of his time. In the same way that Shakespearian characters still seem to live with us today as the archetypes for human nobility, vanity and ambition, so Holbrooke seemed to be the very human version of American diplomacy itself: pile-driver powerful yet subtly persuasive; brash, volcanic and occasionally offensive, but tactically brilliant and capable of the finest strategic judgment; cold-eyed and sometimes heartlessly realistic, but possessing high principles and real, deep compassion.

It was something to see in action. For many, Holbrooke burst onto the national scene as President Bill Clinton's negotiator to the Balkan wars in 1995. Over the previous four years, the genocidal fighting on the peninsula had been characterized as the inevitable result of age-old European hatreds: the war was too dangerous and complicated for the U.S. to resolve, realists argued. The prime mover behind it, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, was too evil to negotiate with, idealists said. Then, at the height of the slaughter in the summer of that year, as large swaths of land changed hands amid bloody fighting and the Serbs committed the worst massacre in Europe since World War II at Srebrenica, Holbrooke plowed into Belgrade with his barrel-chested confidence and willingness to drink cognac with Milosevic until the early hours of the morning.

As the U.S. and NATO unleashed a bruising air campaign against Serb positions that September, Holbrooke returned repeatedly to the region, alternately cajoling the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims to agree to peace talks that would keep Bosnia whole but allow territorial division within it. And as a former journalist himself, he worked a media deeply skeptical of the U.S. effort, rousing reporters at all hours to deliver tidbits of news, assuring each they were the very first he had chosen to call. He was every bit as charming, persuasive, profane and quick-witted with them as he was with the parties themselves, fully aware that U.S. public opinion mattered as much to the success of his mission as did developments on the ground in the Balkans.

Against the odds, Holbrooke delivered an imperfect but lasting peace at the Dayton talks later that year, an achievement that no doubt saved thousands of lives. It is less well remembered that he failed to stop the next U.S. war against Milosevic, four years later in Kosovo, despite three trips to the region and multiple attempts to threaten and cajole a peaceful outcome. As the initial waves of sorrow and sympathy pass this week, there will be similarly hard assessments to make of his performance as the Obama Administration's top envoy to the fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the end, no doubt, contemporary observers and historians of the future will find some fault in what Holbrooke did over his career, while crediting him with much skill and praising his unexpected and sometimes brilliant successes.

But Holbrooke will leave behind more than a formidable record as a prominent American diplomat. Through those who knew him, and through several generations of American envoys who grew up watching him propel himself toward the country's toughest challenges abroad with equal parts brains and bravado, he will live on as the embodiment of his country's power and limitations, an archetype of American diplomacy in the post–Cold War era.