Bidding Richard Holbrooke Farewell: The Not So Quiet American

By Gregor Peter Schmitz

Richard Holbrooke wasn't just President Barack Obama's special representative to Afghanistan, he was the embodiment of US foreign policy -- with all its strengths and weaknesses. Washington is mourninghis death.

Richard Holbrooke, for decades a fixture of US diplomacy, died on Monday at the age of 69. Zoom
AFP

Richard Holbrooke, for decades a fixture of US diplomacy, died on Monday at the age of 69.

There is little doubt that he was the embodiment of US diplomacy. Richard Holbrooke, who died on Monday evening at the age of 69, was a widely-respected negotiator, a former US ambassador in Berlin and elsewhere, a key player in bringing peace to Bosnia. Most recently, he was President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was, in short, a "giant of US foreign policy," as Obama said on Monday.

That, though, is only part of the story.

In his most recent book, investigative journalist Bob Woodward describes how Holbrooke, prior to being introduced by Obama as his special representative, asked the president to use his full name, Richard, rather than his oft-used nickname Dick. His wife, he explained, wasn't fond of the name.

Obama, who despises all forms of vanity, agreed -- but he later confessed that he found the request an odd one. Indeed, the incident sheds some light on Obama's difficult relationship with Holbrooke, but also on Holbrooke's difficult relationship with himself.

A Throwback

He wanted to be seen as a statesman, a Richard. Often, however, his brusque nature got in the way. Indeed, it became a significant element of his reputation.

Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke often seemed to be a throwback -- a symbol of a time when the US maintained an unshaken belief in its supremacy, a time when China was still in a deep slumber. The proud members of the US Foreign Service were the tools of a Washington that wanted a say in all parts of the globe. Self-doubt was not a widespread characteristic in US embassies around the world.

Few exemplified this attitude to a greater degree than Richard Holbrooke, who began his diplomatic career in 1962 and soon found himself working on the Vietnam staff for President Lyndon Johnson. Washington is full of aging officials who can recount anecdotes of a young, self-confident Holbrooke in the bars of Saigon -- how he lectured a long-serving senator; how he once sent a memo straight to the president in which he argued that the war was going awry; how he collected mentors and letters of recommendation as other diplomats collected visa stamps. Soon he was known by a nickname: "Bulldozer."

Should Graham Greene have required an archetype for his hero Alden Pyle -- the young CIA agent in his novel "The Quiet American," a character whose good intentions often backfired -- he need have looked no further than Richard Holbrooke.

In contrast to Pyle, of course, Holbrooke was not blind to the limits of US power. He was a co-author of the Pentagon Papers, the secret report which analyzed how the US became involved in the morass in Vietnam, the publication of which in the New York Times later contributed to the end of the war.

The Kind of Confidence that Made Vietnam Possible

But Holbrooke's American self-confidence, his conviction that he and his country could solve virtually any problem, never abandoned him. It was the kind of confidence that made Vietnam possible in the first place.

Still, it served Holbrooke well at times. In 1995, he was the driving force behind the Dayton Accords, the agreement which finally helped the hesitant Europeans to put an end to the Balkan conflict in their own backyard. Rarely was he as effective as during those talks. He didn't shy away from raising his voice with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and he bullied other belligerents for so long that they preferred a peace deal to ongoing talks with Holbrooke.

Many would say that Holbrooke should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Balkans, or at least a stint as Secretary of State. But President Bill Clinton wanted to install a woman at the head of the State Department following his re-election, and chose Madeleine Albright. Holbrooke became the US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Holbrooke was partially to blame for having been passed over. After his Dayton Accords triumph, his ego grew. During appearances at conferences in Europe he often played the role of a strict lecturer, speaking in a preachy monologue. His smile was often more wry than warm. Even as he launched important trans-Atlantic projects, such as the American Academy just outside Berlin, he left little doubt about who was the superpower, and who was not.

Being Where the Story Was

It is an attitude which hurt him more than it helped during his last post as Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke lobbied hard for the post, though he was not an Obama confidant and he could have earned millions in the private sector. He remained true to his original ambitions when, after earning his degree, he tried to become a journalist but was rejected by the New York Times: He wanted to be where the story was.

He took on the task even though his resources as special representative were limited. Clinton told him he would be the civilian counterpart to General David Petraeus, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. "I laughed," Holbrooke told the New Yorker. "He has more airplanes than I have telephones."

The experienced diplomat knew that he could, at most, help change perceptions -- such as making the term "AfPak" better known, as a way of communicating that, in the fight against terror, Pakistan was just as important as Afghanistan.

Holbrooke believed that €50 billion was necessary to institute effective reform in Pakistan. But he only got a fraction of that amount. Furthermore, he wasn't allowed to go on the record with comments about important issues such as the US drone campaign in Pakistan.

His gruff nature led to difficulties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Holbrooke had little affection for Karzai, but couldn't raise his voice as he had done with Milosevic -- nor could he bombard him. Compromise, it seems, was not in his nature.

His lack of a productive working relationship with Karzai meant that he became increasingly ineffective as a special representative. When the US spent months last year re-crafting its Afghanistan strategy, Holbrooke played a secondary role, and there would appear to be few volunteers to take over his job. It's considered something of a dead end.

The fact that his aorta ruptured during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- which triggered multiple operations before his passing on Monday -- is reminiscent of a soldier dying in the field. And as sad as it sounds, it may also be a fitting analogy to the US involvement in Afghanistan: A determined and energetic fight, but with little to show.

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