Reading “Masters and Commanders,” Andrew Roberts’s magnificent account of British and American leaders in World War II, I was struck by how many of them, working prodigious hours and under great strain, were struck down by heart attacks while in their 60s.
This doesn’t happen anymore, I thought, with the blood pressure and cholesterol medicines many of us routinely take.
But it does, as we were reminded by the sudden death at age 69 this week of Richard Holbrooke, who was working prodigiously as Barack Obama’s special representative for AfPak, i.e., Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke was known in cynical Washington circles for his high opinion of his own abilities and for his self-promotion with policymakers and the press. But from my own observations and in frequent interactions with him, I think that his opinion of himself was justified and that it is ludicrous for ambitious Washington insiders to castigate others for a trait they share.
Was he “probably the greatest diplomat of his generation,” as National Journal‘s Michael Hirsch wrote? Yes, probably, and the Obama administration, like the three previous Democratic administrations, was lucky to have his services, even if none of those presidents felt obliged to make him secretary of state, as he surely wanted.
Holbrooke began his career as a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam, and he became known for a memo prepared during the Johnson administration that described the war effort there as unwinnable. He was a junior member of the Paris peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968.
Unlike some of those responsible for America’s prosecution of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he did not draw the lessons that the use of American military power was always counterproductive and that America was not a force for good in the world.
He was, in other words, a Democrat in the tradition of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, and not in the mold of many democratic leaders in the four post-Vietnam decades.
Foreign Service officers tend to specialize in certain regions, but Holbrooke got around. He was assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs in the Carter administration, but when Bill Clinton became president he was named ambassador to Germany and then assistant secretary of state for Europe.
It was in that capacity that he pressed Clinton to take a robust approach to end the fighting and “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. He was able to negotiate the settlements with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic not by sweet persuasion but by credibly threatening and using American military power.
He presided masterfully over the talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and his Dayton Accords brought peace to Bosnia that has now lasted a decade and a half.
As ambassador to the United Nations, he reached an accord with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms on U.N. dues and procedures. He encourages Helms’ support of anti-AIDS programs and was punctilious about traveling to North Carolina to honor him after he retired.
Holbrooke was less fortunate in his excursions into partisan politics. In the last decade, he backed Al Gore, John Kerry and Hilary Clinton for president, and any of them, if elected, would probably have appointed him secretary of state.
The inside story of Holbrooke’s work in this administration has not been fully told, and may not be told as well as he told the story of his work in the Balkans in his 1998 book “To End a War.” Relations between Holbrooke and Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to have been abrasive and at times nonexistent. I suspect that Holbrooke saw himself playing the bad cop while other appointees were playing good cop to a leader who at best has been a problematic ally of the United States.
It was an arduous assignment, and just reading about those long flights to Islamabad and Kabul, the endless hours of agonizing negotiations and his late night reading makes one weary. Like those leaders in World War II, Holbrooke seems to have literally worn himself out and pushed his body to the breaking point. Given an assignment that few would envy and placed in a bureaucratically ambiguous position, he labored hard and uncomplainingly in what he considered the interest of his country.
He leaves behind a tantalizing question: Were his great talents as fully utilized by this president as they might have been?