Shadow Government

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Remembering a patriot

I did not know Dick Holbrooke particularly well. We shared neither the same social nor political circles. When we did interact, I found that he lived up to the image he had created for himself: brilliant, assertive, supremely self-confident. These traits served him well when he was banging Balkan heads together to bring about the ...

ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

I did not know Dick Holbrooke particularly well. We shared neither the same social nor political circles. When we did interact, I found that he lived up to the image he had created for himself: brilliant, assertive, supremely self-confident. These traits served him well when he was banging Balkan heads together to bring about the Dayton Accords of 1995. Holbrooke wasn't just dealing with warring groups; he was tackling historic hatreds that rivaled those of Northern Ireland and Israel and the Arabs. In fact, the latter two conflicts had never led to World War; Bosnian bitterness triggered World War I. That Holbrooke was able to bring about a peace, however uneasy, that has held for the past fifteen years is lasting testimony to his ability as a negotiator.

Of course, Bosnia was only one highlight of Holbrooke's career. His reach quite literally extended across the globe. He was a familiar figure in Europe before he took on the Bosnian challenge, having served as Ambassador to Germany prior to becoming assistant secretary of state for Europe, the job he held when he pushed through the Dayton Accords. Yet at the same time he was a recognized East Asia expert who maintained his ties with the region when he was out of government. Having served as an extremely effective president of the Asia Society, he was quite familiar with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan when he took on role as special envoy to those troubled countries.

Everyone knew that Dick Holbrooke wanted to be secretary of state. He never got the job. When Bill Clinton offered him the Ambassadorship to the U.N. it was clearly a consolation prize. But unlike others in Washington whose egos blocked them from taking jobs they thought were a rung too low for their talents, Holbrooke saluted smartly and served in what after all, as he would remind people, was a cabinet position. 

I did not know Dick Holbrooke particularly well. We shared neither the same social nor political circles. When we did interact, I found that he lived up to the image he had created for himself: brilliant, assertive, supremely self-confident. These traits served him well when he was banging Balkan heads together to bring about the Dayton Accords of 1995. Holbrooke wasn’t just dealing with warring groups; he was tackling historic hatreds that rivaled those of Northern Ireland and Israel and the Arabs. In fact, the latter two conflicts had never led to World War; Bosnian bitterness triggered World War I. That Holbrooke was able to bring about a peace, however uneasy, that has held for the past fifteen years is lasting testimony to his ability as a negotiator.

Of course, Bosnia was only one highlight of Holbrooke’s career. His reach quite literally extended across the globe. He was a familiar figure in Europe before he took on the Bosnian challenge, having served as Ambassador to Germany prior to becoming assistant secretary of state for Europe, the job he held when he pushed through the Dayton Accords. Yet at the same time he was a recognized East Asia expert who maintained his ties with the region when he was out of government. Having served as an extremely effective president of the Asia Society, he was quite familiar with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan when he took on role as special envoy to those troubled countries.

Everyone knew that Dick Holbrooke wanted to be secretary of state. He never got the job. When Bill Clinton offered him the Ambassadorship to the U.N. it was clearly a consolation prize. But unlike others in Washington whose egos blocked them from taking jobs they thought were a rung too low for their talents, Holbrooke saluted smartly and served in what after all, as he would remind people, was a cabinet position. 

Again, Barack Obama did not offer him the seventh floor office that he wanted at State. Yet again he did not refuse his President’s request to undertake a different, and difficult, mission. 

At the end of the day, despite his bluster, Richard Holbrooke was a patriot who, with however much difficulty, repressed his ego to serve his country. And in that regard he will remain a model for us all.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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