In Memoriam: Richard C. Holbrooke

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 15, 2010

It is a testament to the intractability of the problems associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan that they were handed off to Richard Holbrooke to resolve. For as long as he was associated with the design and implementation of American foreign policy–that is to say, almost half a century–Holbrooke received the toughest, most distasteful assignments around. He started his career grappling with Vietnam. His career reached its high point when he was asked to resolve the bloodshed in the Balkans (in large part because he browbeat the Clinton Administration into giving him the assignment which the Administration itself was scared to tackle at the highest levels), and responded by helping to bring about the Dayton Accords. And as a dénouement, Holbrooke got AfPak given to him as a portfolio, instead of the position of Secretary of State, which he had wanted for all of his life. Surely, this was a disappointment to a man as egotistical as he was talented (Holbrooke was very talented, which gives one an idea of just how egotistical he must have been as well), but to Richard Holbrooke, no amount of disappointment could diminish the attraction of taking on so challenging a problem. He attacked his new assignment with gusto.

That Holbrooke did not succeed in bringing about a Dayton Accords-esque resolution to the problems facing Afghanistan and Pakistan is not due to any loss of talent, or devotion on his part. Rather, it was a consequence of the fact that his body betrayed him before his intellect and indefatigable nature could have concocted a solution. I am not sure that anyone who saw Holbrooke face down the likes of Milosevic, Mladic, and Karadzic would have thought that he could have been felled by an aortic dissection, which is an exceedingly rare condition. But fate can be cruel, and death incomprehensible. And so, the diplomat deemed considered as close to indispensable as possible by his colleagues, and given the most maddening foreign policy challenge to conquer, is now no longer around to lend his formidable brainpower and near-manic dedication to solving the problems presented to him by his portfolio.

To say that Richard Holbrooke was a complicated man would be to engage in a shocking understatement. He was, by all accounts, maddeningly self-obsessed, conspiratorial, flattering, blustering, impish, sensitive, and truculent; the enfant terrible of American diplomacy. But he was also by all accounts tremendously brilliant, high-minded, patriotic, deeply loyal, able to inspire astonishing loyalty in others, possessed of a remarkable work ethic, and attracted to diplomacy because it called to his better angels. If he did not exist, and if a storyteller came up with a character of his personality, his talents, and his life’s calling, no one would take the character sketch seriously; it would simply seem too outlandish to be true. But it was true, Richard Holbrooke did exist, he did live his life, and in doing so, he made tremendous contributions as a public servant. I won’t pretend that I agreed with him on every issue; indeed, there were plenty of issues on which we disagreed. But I also won’t pretend that he did not have my admiration and respect as a serious and titanic figure on the world stage, despite whatever disagreements I may have had with him. “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

This profile of Holbrooke contains the following revealing passage about him:

“This is my last job in government,” says Holbrooke, who is 68. Maybe, but Holbrooke, who doesn’t hide his disappointment that he was never appointed secretary of state, doesn’t seem like the retiring type. In David Halberstam’s Vietnam chronicle, an anonymous government official is quoted as saying that Averell Harriman is “the only ambitious seventy-seven-year-old I’ve ever met.” Holbrooke told me he was the anonymous source. In about 10 years, that’s probably what they’ll be saying about him.

Richard Holbrooke was denied the chance to live to be seventy-seven, but can anyone deny that if he had lived that long, Holbrooke would indeed have been a septuagenarian on the make? And can anyone doubt that his ambition–self-glorifying at times, though it may have been–did not serve to the ultimate benefit of his country?

Requiescat in pace.

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