Jewish World Review
Dec. 21, 2010
/ 14 Teves, 5771
The Talented Mr. Holbrooke
There is so much to be said about Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat and dynamo who died last week, that it's hard to know where to start. Or stop. One is as hard as the other. He was that kind of character.
They say he will be missed. And how. He was no genius, but he began with a native intelligence and then, through education and experience and mainly energy, honed it into the kind of temperament that effective negotiators bring to the table, and effective people maybe to life.
Let's just say Dick Holbrooke wasn't much of one for hazy abstractions. He preferred to get things done. You'd never catch him repeating Wilsonian simplifications about how one great idea or even 14 of them, as in the Fourteen Points, would one day save the world. Freedom! National self-determination! The League of Nations! Hope! Change! Audacity! Name your own favorite panacea. The talented Mr. Holbrooke left that sort of thing to all the Great Simplifiers of the world.
Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke understood that the world was a complicated place, and slogans no substitute for sweat, patience, perseverance and good cheer. Not that he couldn't jazz up an idea when he needed to sell it, but he wasn't about to swallow it whole, the way the ignorant do cherries, pit and all.
How to describe the man's cast of mind? Maybe it's the peripheral details, the tangential aspects of his powerful personality, the feistiness and impatience as well as the perseverance, that say most about him.
Let it be noted that he didn't suffer fools. Except when he had to in order to make peace, and then he gave them only enough slack to hang themselves. See the case of Serbia's homicidal dictator, the late and unlamented Slobodan Milosevic.
Being a fool was the least of Slobo's faults. In the end he was undone by the peace agreement Ambassador Holbrooke finally managed to craft between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the 1990s. At one time they may have been Yugoslavs in name, but never in soul.
When there was no more patched-together Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito's savvy rule, there was no more co-existence, either. And so Richard Holbrooke had to step into the vacuum and fashion the Dayton Accords, his signature achievement. The eventual result was not only freedom for a new country like Kosovo but for an old one -- a Serbia freed from Slobodan Milosevic's bloody grip.
Here's what distinguished Mr. Holbrooke's diplomacy: its recognition that more than diplomacy is needed to make peace. Sometimes it takes a war. It took Richard Holbrooke an excruciatingly long time to convince his superiors in the Clinton administration -- we use the term only in its technical sense -- that nothing short of an air war, with or without the United Nations, would finally end the slaughter on the ground. It did.
The tragedy was that his advice was studiously ignored for two years and more while the killing proceeded. Once the bombing commenced, the path to peace was open. And he exploited that path the way a grandmaster exploits an opening on the chessboard, pushing pawn after pawn forward. Till checkmate.
Whatever the U.N.'s "peace" keepers had provided in the Balkans, it wasn't peace. They not only failed to stop the violence there; their dithering encouraged it. Perhaps the worst massacre of those bloody times -- at Srebrenica -- took place under the never-watchful eye of the U.N.'s Kofi Annan, who could scarcely touch an international crisis without making it worse. Much worse.
Whether it was "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans or genocide in Rwanda, he was the U.N.'s useless man on the scene, and could be counted on to aid and abet the worst crimes of his time by his silence. Richard Holbrooke was anything but silent; he was always on the phone, pressing, pressing, pressing for action. Yet he had a sure knack for negotiation, too, once American power had set the scene for diplomatic success.
Mr. Holbrooke would have made a fine, or at least intriguing, secretary of state, for he was anything but a placeholder. He believed in actually doing things, or at least attempting to do them. He even had the good sense now and then to let intractable dogs lie rather than stir them up for no good purpose and then pretend he was accomplishing something. (See current American policy in the Middle East, for example.) But he was passed over for the No. 1 job at State in favor of one mediocrity after another. Remember Warren Christopher? Madeleine Albright? And why should you? Both served as secretary of state at one time or another, but without leaving a trace.
Bill Clinton always did have an aversion to quality when it came to making the highest appointments. He was no more going to make Richard Holbrooke secretary of state than put a Richard S. Arnold -- the finest appellate judge of his era -- on the Supreme Court of the United States. And there was something about a talent as brazen as Dick Holbrooke's that almost seemed to offend our 42nd president.
Bill Clinton was always more at home with nonentities. Why? Because they would never upstage him? Because a talent that shines also irritates? Your guess is as good as mine. For whatever reason, Richard Holbrooke would never be secretary of state, much as he would have loved to be. He shared that much with Bill Clinton: great ambition.
Mr. Holbrooke should have been used to being passed over. After majoring in history (of course) at Brown and editing the student newspaper, he'd been passed over by The New York Times for a reporting job. He settled for the foreign service instead. But he remained something of a newshound, always wanting to be where the action was. However many honorary degrees and prestigious titles he collected, there was always the zest of the amateur about Dick Holbrooke -- that is, someone who pursues his vocation for the love of it. Which may have been why he had it all over the professional paper-pushers at well-named Foggy Bottom.
Distinguished diplomat or not, Richard Holbrooke loved to jaw with the press. At one of those seminars for editorial writers at the State Department, which the top brass can never find time to attend, Mr. Holbrooke was there and talking. A friend who was present remembers that he didn't just give a speech but went around the conference table chatting with each editorial writer in turn. With him, discretion took second place to communication. Maybe because he was one of those all too rare diplomats who understand that diplomacy needn't -- indeed, shouldn't -- be conducted only with other diplomats. He wasn't just a diplomat, but a politician--with a zest for office politics, too, though he was never as good at it as he may have thought. Or he would have been secretary of state.
A diplomat needs to negotiate with the public, too, especially in a democracy. And the best way to do that tends to be through the press. He may have despised us, or at least some of us, and with good reason, but Dick Holbrooke never snubbed us. He had the sense to understand that, though he may not have much liked the always meddlesome media, we could be useful in his twin causes, America's national interest and the peace of the world. They tend to be intertwined. And he did more than his share for both.
It should have come as no surprise that Richard Holbrooke would wear out at 69. But between a longer life and another crack at the action, there is no doubt which choice he would have made. He always wanted to be in on the game, more interested in living a full life than just a long one. The country was fortunate to have had him as long as we did.
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