Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941-2010

Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941-2010

Special Representative Richard Holbrooke passed away on Monday night after two surgeries failed to stem the damage caused by a tear in his aorta suffered on Friday.

"Tonight America has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday evening in a statement. "Richard Holbrooke served the country he loved for nearly half a century, representing the United States in far-flung war-zones and high-level peace talks, always with distinctive brilliance and unmatched determination. He was one of a kind — a true statesman — and that makes his passing all the more painful."

"I had the privilege to know Richard for many years and to call him a friend, colleague and confidante. As Secretary of State, I have counted on his advice and relied on his leadership. This is a sad day for me, for the State Department and for the United States of America," Clinton said. "Tonight my thoughts and prayers are with Richard’s beloved wife Kati, his sons David and Anthony, his step-children Elizabeth and Chris Jennings, his daughter-in-law Sarah, and all of his countless friends and colleagues."

There had been hope around Washington Monday that Holbrooke would pull through after he collapsed in Clinton’s 7th floor office Friday afternoon, then picked himself up and walked himself out of the State Department on his way to the hospital.

On Monday, President Obama called Holbrooke a "tough son of a gun" and said that he is "going to be putting up a tremendous fight." After his passing, Obama issued a statement praising Holbrooke as "a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected."

"The progress that we have made in Afghanistan and Pakistan is due in no small measure to Richard’s relentless focus on America’s national interest, and pursuit of peace and security," said Obama. "One of his friends and admirers once said that, ‘If you’re not on the team and you’re in his way, God help you.’  Like so many Presidents before me, I am grateful that Richard Holbrooke was on my team, as are the American people."

Earlier Monday, Clinton had said that Holbrooke was in "stable but still in very critical condition" after undergoing his second surgical procedure in as many days, an operation to improve circulation. He endured 21 hours of surgery on Saturday to repair the tear in his aorta that caused his collapse.

As news of his death was reported Monday evening, messages of condolence and fond memories were pouring in from foreign leaders and diplomats around the world.

"In Richard Holbrooke’s passing the world has lost a great diplomat while I have lost a personal friend and professional role model," said Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani. "His greatest asset was his ability to be a personal friend and diplomatic interlocutor at the same time."

At a breakfast meeting the day before his collapse, Haqqani asked Holbrooke how long he planned to keep working. "As long as I can make a difference," Holbrooke responded.

Holbrooke’s legendary multi-decade career as a public servant began as a USAID representative in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and ended with his stint as the Obama administration’s top civilian official dealing with the war in Afghanistan in Pakistan.

In that latest role, he was furiously active and hugely controversial, as he took on at different times the military, the Afghan government, the U.S. development community, Congress, and any others he felt stood in the way of progress.

At times, he was the Obama administration’s unofficial spokesman on the mission in Afghanistan. Yet he had a strained relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then U.S. military commander Stanley McChrystal, and top members of the National Security Council. Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones reportedly wanted to fire Holbrooke, but Clinton stepped in to protect her long time friend and advisor.

He famously coined the term "Af-Pak" and advocated for it right up until the time it was scuttled. He traveled to dozens of countries, organizing a worldwide network of Special Representatives. He sometimes bragged that he was an author of the Pentagon Papers.

In April, Holbrooke had angioplasty due to possible clogged heart valves, but traveled to Afghanistan only one week later. In a June trip to Afghanistan, his plane came under fire and he brushed it off, saying, "I’ve been shot at in other countries, a lot of other countries."

Inside the State Department, Holbrooke assembled the most comprehensive interagency team in government, with top experts from over a dozen agencies. He was so proud of his team that he would often spend time praising them one by one during his public speaking events. One of his deputies, Frank Ruggiero, is acting head of that team for the time being, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday.

Throughout his tenure in the Obama administration, there was constant speculation about exactly how powerful Holbrooke actually was, whether he was up or down in the eyes of President Obama, and whether his varying levels of public exposure were indications of his relative policy influence.

In one of your humble Cable guy’s first ever posts for Foreign Policy, Holbrooke sat down for an interview to diffuse rumors that his lack of recent public appearances was an indication he had been sidelined by the White House.

"I didn’t know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," said Holbrooke at the time, denying that the White House had given him any instructions to lay low or stay out of the public eye, as had been alleged.

What wasn’t written in that post was that your humble Cable guy had spent the two hours prior to the interview following Holbrooke around a book party for his wife, author Kati Marton, in an attempt to get a comment from him.

After successfully avoiding contact for the entire party, eventually Holbrooke agreed to talk. He began by putting his hand on my shoulder, looking me straight in the eye, and saying, "Josh, I want you to know I believe that government officials have a responsibility to talk to the press… even annoying reporters who follow them around parties when they are just trying to have a good time with their friends."

And that was Holbrooke; diplomatic and sarcastic, charming and brusque, always entertaining, and always larger than life. He will be missed.