Terms of Engagement

A Man For Barbarous Coasts

Remembering Richard Holbrooke.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I once told my wife that I would consider my life complete if I could overhear Richard Holbrooke saying to someone — preferably someone very important — “Look, I’ve got to go; Jim Traub is on the other line.” My conversations with him always seemed to end the other way around: “Jim, I’ve got the South Korean foreign minister on the other line; call back if you need anything else.” How could I take offense? I always laughed. The last time I saw Holbrooke, the lifelong diplomat who served most recently as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I told him I was writing a profile of Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey. “Jim,” he said, “you cannot write that article without talking to me.” He had known Davutoglu for years, and was prepared to defend him against his critics — including ones inside the State Department. We were scheduled to talk by phone at 4 p.m. on Friday. Earlier that day, inevitably, his secretary emailed to say that something had come up; the ambassador would have to make it another time. Now I wonder how many other people could say they were supposed to talk to Richard Holbrooke at 4 p.m. on Friday.

Holbrooke, who died yesterday after undergoing emergency surgery for an aortal tear, would have been certain that his obit would be page one material in the New York Times. But he would have been very pleased to know that it would appear above the fold (even if it was on the less coveted left side of the page). Is that such a bad thing? There were those who thought Holbrooke had grave flaws, and those who thought he had foibles. I was in the latter camp. Ten years ago, I wrote a long and flattering profile of him in the Times Magazine, though of course I included criticism from those he had trampled on the way up. I imagine the piece tickled Holbrooke’s vanity, though what he said to me was, “Jim, I cannot believe you repeated those canards about me.” He made it sound like a moral flaw. The man was sincerely blind to his own faults. Then again, self-understanding is a more useful attribute for a journalist than for a diplomat.

Yes, Holbrooke was ambitious. He was a pushy, self-promoting, Jewish guy in a profession that, especially when he first took it up, was WASPy and bankerish. He wanted to be in the center of the action, and he could drive people to distraction until he got there. In January 1993, just before Bill Clinton took office as president, Holbrooke sent a long memo to Warren Christopher and Tony Lake, soon to be Clinton’s secretary of state and national security advisor, insisting that the new administration would need to take urgent action to prevent atrocities in the Balkans, from which he had just returned. Having supported Al Gore in the primaries, Holbrooke had no job in the administration, and no prospect of one. But he couldn’t let the moment pass. In his memoir, To End A War, Holbrooke concedes that “the memo was not welcome,” and was never even answered.

But Holbrooke fought his way into the center of the Clinton administration’s policy-making apparatus on the Balkans. He cared about it more than other people did — certainly more than the highly professional but classically cool and difference-splitting secretary of state did. And Holbrooke, along with then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and others, overcame the administration’s Europe-first inclinations to finally force decisive action in 1995. Who would you prefer: Richard Holbrooke with all his flaws, or Warren Christopher with his?

I wrote about Holbrooke in 2000, when he was U.N. ambassador — a stage of his career that has gotten relatively little attention in the initial raft of obituaries, perhaps because no one was shooting at anyone else at the time. Holbrooke had been dealt a terrible hand: The United States had fallen so far behind on its annual dues payments that it could have been suspended from membership, but the Republican-controlled Congress was refusing to pay up unless the United Nations accepted a series of onerous “reforms” and agreed to a reduction in U.S. dues. Holbrooke visited every right-wing nut on Capitol Hill in order to persuade them that the United Nations was, in his formulation, “flawed but indispensable.” At the United Nations, he never argued that the United States ought to be paying less; he honestly told his fellow diplomats that this was the only way to bring the United States back into the fold, and admonished them to think less about justice and more about success. He did much less bullying than seducing, for the simple reason that bullying wouldn’t have worked. He was extremely popular in the hallways of the United Nations — because he could deliver the Clinton White House, because he threw great dinner parties where the ambassadors could meet network news anchors, and because diplomats actually like candor. Washington was much harder going.

In January 2000, Holbrooke persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a hearing on the United Nations in New York. This afforded him a pretext to offer Sen. Jesse Helms, the yahoo isolationist who chaired the committee, the opportunity to address the Security Council. U.N. diplomats regarded Helms as the devil incarnate, but they behaved themselves impeccably while Helms heaped abuse on them. And at the hearing the next day, Holbrooke gave Helms a comically — and, to some, nauseatingly — disingenuous introduction. Helms, by now charmed, briefly donned a blue U.N. cap. That was the emblematic moment; soon thereafter, Congress agreed to appropriate the dues, and the United Nations agreed to a reformulation of dues payments. The Dayton talks ending the Balkans war may have been more dramatic, but the Miracle of Turtle Bay was every bit as impressive an achievement.

Holbrooke’s current assignment would not, of course, have ended with any such triumph. That’s not because Holbrooke was ill-suited to be Obama’s viceroy to Central Asia, but because, for all its power to kill bad guys and break china, the United States does not seem able to bring about good outcomes inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or maybe he was ill-suited: Holbrooke thought he could bully Afghan President Hamid Karzai into being a better leader of his own people, and all he did was wreck his relations with Karzai. Holbrooke never sounded altogether convincing when I heard him defending the policy on the news, but it’s hardly clear what he would have done if it were all up to him. (Master of the media that he was, Holbrooke appears to have prepared the ground for failure by persuading Bob Woodward, during his research for Obama’s Wars, that he thought the counterinsurgency policy Obama ultimately adopted was a loser.) It seems, alas, that his career was ultimately circular, beginning in Vietnam and, at least metaphorically, ending there as well. All the intellect, ambition, and moral passion in the world can’t square such a circle.

Richard Holbrooke was not an ideologue, though he was on very comfortable terms with foreign-policy ideologies. His legacy does not lie with left or right, realism or idealism. He was a problem solver who loved the most intractable problems. In my profile, I cited an epigram from Herman Melville that Holbrooke used in To End A War: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” We’ll miss Holbrooke the next time we need to send someone to the barbarous coasts.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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