Remembering Richard Holbrooke

A personal look at the foreign-policy titan from some of the people who intersected his long career.


Amb. Richard Holbrooke, a giant of American government and one of Foreign Policy's very first editors, passed away on Monday at the age of 69. From Vietnam, where he was an early and forceful internal voice of dissent on U.S. military policy, to the Balkans, where he engineered the Dayton Accords that brought years of bloodshed to an end, to Afghanistan, where he was sent by President Barack Obama to help salvage yet another faltering U.S. military adventure, few figures had as large or as lasting an impact on U.S. diplomacy over the last half-century.

Amb. Richard Holbrooke, a giant of American government and one of Foreign Policy‘s very first editors, passed away on Monday at the age of 69. From Vietnam, where he was an early and forceful internal voice of dissent on U.S. military policy, to the Balkans, where he engineered the Dayton Accords that brought years of bloodshed to an end, to Afghanistan, where he was sent by President Barack Obama to help salvage yet another faltering U.S. military adventure, few figures had as large or as lasting an impact on U.S. diplomacy over the last half-century.

Holbrooke will be remembered as much for his forceful negotiating style (Henry Kissinger once said, “If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just say yes. If you say no, you’ll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful”) as his prodigious talent for making and keeping friends in high places. To honor Holbrooke’s legacy, FP has collected the following reminiscences from some of the foreign-policy practitioners, journalists, and scholars who knew him best.

Carl Bildt

Richard Holbrooke, the man, was nearly surpassed in his lifetime by Richard Holbrooke, the myth. He was truly a legend in his own life, and it would be wrong to say that he objected to it.

We worked together around the clock in and around Bosnia in the summer of horrors and the autumn of hope of 1995. Our friendship was forged in the fire of the Balkans. He was the United States, and I was supposed to be the European Union. It was a rollercoaster ride of travel, meetings, disappointment, hope, despair, persistence, and sometimes plain luck.

One of the myths is that Richard bullied the Balkans to peace. He did not. If anything, he bullied Washington into agreeing on a policy that made peace possible.

And to this day I don’t think anyone else was more cut out for the job: He combined the skills of the diplomat, with the determination and frankness of the seasoned politician. He had a keen sense not only for what was necessary, but also for what was politically possible. He forged peace out of a combination of the rhetoric of Washington and the reality of the Balkans.

The myth that enveloped Richard was only partly true: He actually charmed much more than he bullied, persuaded more than he forced, and flattered more than he threatened. He was no doubt formidable as an enemy, but I am certain he was even more formidable as a friend.

Carl Bildt is the foreign minister of Sweden.

Robert D. Kaplan

Richard C. Holbrooke, the American diplomat who died on Monday, has been variously described as “towering,” “mercurial,” “larger than life,” a “force of nature,” a “bully,” and the “bulldozer.” This may all be true, but it misses something more crucial. Holbrooke was the last vestige of the East Coast Democratic Party establishment, who united the disparate worlds of New York and Washington. In this, he was partly a younger incarnation of the mid-20th century diplomat Averell Harriman.

Because America’s largest city is not the nation’s capital, American elites have been divided to a degree that the British and French elites have not been. New York is the center of art and finance, the home turf of the liberal intellectual and journalistic classes; whereas Washington represents the heart of government and its attendant policy wonks. Holbrooke in his very person healed the divide, and thus brought us back to an older, less disjointed America, when an Establishment could rule because of the absence of partisan and cultural splits. There was definitely something classic about him.

Holbrooke was comfortable not only with the operational mechanics of policy, but with the world of philosophical ideals. He respected both the moral component of foreign policy, beloved of intellectuals, but also the practical concerns of the human bean counters at the Pentagon. The ability to learn and empathize with both groups was at the root of his effectiveness. Coming up with uplifting ideas is one thing; operationalizing them within vast government bureaucracies quite another. And Holbrooke could do both. Holbrooke, thus, was a force against determinism and fatalism. He epitomized how individual men and women can overcome the forces of geography and culture, even as he evinced respect for those forces in the first place. He believed in working as close to the edge as possible, without ever overstepping the boundaries of realism. Though he championed intervention in the Balkans, he would have handled the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan far differently than did the Bush administration.

Holbrooke and I clashed at our first meeting over my book, Balkan Ghosts, which was used as a weapon against intervention in Bosnia, even though the book was completed and chunks of it published before the first shot was even fired in the region; and even as I publicly supported intervention. (I never felt that the forces of ethnic division that I described constituted an argument against intervention; for it is only the bleakest terrains where humanitarian intervention is contemplated in the first place.) The intervention and the Dayton Peace Accords which followed in 1995 were proof that ethnic divisions are mere obstacles that determined men can overcome: and Holbrooke did just that. We might say that without his combination of ideals and practicality — his fusing of the best of New York and Washington — the war in Bosnia could have dragged on, with more people slaughtered. History pivoted on his person.

Holbrooke’s labors on behalf of the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan were as immense as his efforts on behalf of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Alas, he had not succeeded yet in his new venture at the time of his death. The reason was basic. In Bosnia, the war was beginning to wind down and it was time for the diplomats. In Afghanistan, the war is still raging and so generals hold center stage. Only when security improves will all of the legwork done by Holbrooke and his staff be able to show real results. Thus, as the situation improves in Afghanistan, if it does, we will miss him even more.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

Vali Nasr

Working for Richard Holbrooke was an education, in the true meaning of the term. He was a brilliant thinker with an uncanny ability to express complex ideas in lucid ways, and he never failed to dazzle those who ventured into his office with the depth and breadth of his knowledge.

A few weeks before he passed away, he summoned a few of us to his office. Notepads in hand, we arrived, prepared to discuss the business of the day. Instead, he asked, “Have you read George Orwell?” We all said yes. “What have you read?” he continued. We cited the familiar titles: Animal Farm, 1984, and Down and Out in Paris and London; but none of those was the work he had in mind.

Finally we gave up. He asked if we had read “Politics and the English Language” — an essay Orwell wrote in 1946. He went on summarize Orwell’s argument that bureaucracy was the enemy of the English language: Jargon, convoluted phrases masking the plain truth, and the irrepressible urge to use the passive tense all made for unreadable memos and papers that did nothing to improve policymaking. He had thought of Orwell while reading a particularly incoherent memo the previous night, and had decided that the old master’s advice was as relevant now as it was in 1946. By the end of the day, every member of our SRAP team had a copy of Orwell’s timeless essay.

Richard Holbrooke was an editor at heart, and he was good at that trade. He valued clear prose, and liked sentences that were lucid and got quickly to the point. His style evoked Hemingway: simple declarative sentences and no flowery clauses. He never saw a text he could not improve upon, and spent a good deal of time, sometime in the midst of meetings and phone calls, making sure that what SRAP produced stood up to his test of good English.

Vali Nasr was senior advisor to the late special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amb. Richard Holbrooke.

Derek Chollet

Richard Holbrooke will always be remembered as his generation’s premier diplomat and statesman — a doer. But he also was a person who had a keen sense of the past and the role memory plays in defining today’s world — he was a historian at heart.

Holbrooke loved history. He loved books and arguments, stories and sweeping narratives. In that sense he shares so much with the historian-diplomat he deeply admired, George Kennan. Holbrooke had little tolerance for the instant policy books that dominate Washington’s bookshelves (he described them as “glorified Foreign Affairs articles”) and always pushed people to write history; something, he would say, that would last.

I learned this firsthand in the years I assisted him with his Bosnia memoir, as I watched him devour other great histories to help inspire his writing. In government, Holbrooke always infused his arguments with history (needless to say, Vietnam came up quite a bit in describing his most recent mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and he would circulate chapters from history books to his staff and colleagues. And history was at the core of his love for his wife Kati and her many books that explored the past in innovative and powerful ways.

In my last conversation with him, shortly before he fell ill, he mentioned that he’d been re-reading Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” and intended to distribute copies to his team. “There’s so much bad writing in government,” he said. In recent months, we had started to talk about the next book he wanted to write, which I believe could have been the greatest diplomatic memoir since Kennan’s over 40 years ago. I will miss so many things about Richard, and only with deep sadness can I accept that we will never get to read that book.

Derek Chollet is principal deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff.


Peter Galbraith

On Sept. 16, 1995, the fate of the city of Banja Luka hung in the balance, and with it the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For three years, the Bosnian Serbs had waged war on the country’s Muslims and Croats, but now they were on the verge of collapse. Abetted by NATO airstrikes, a resurgent Croatian Army was on the outskirts of the only city the Bosnian Serbs still held.

Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton’s special envoy for Bosnia, had instructions that day to convince the Croats not to destroy Banja Luka. Holbrooke flew into Zagreb, where I was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, in advance of a meeting the next day with Croatia’s authoritarian president, Franjo Tudjman. Holbrooke had doubts about the wisdom of his instructions — and so did I. A Serb defeat at Banja Luka would certainly spell the end for Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and his bloodthirsty army chief, Ratko Mladic, the architects of Europe’s first genocide since the Nazis. It was not hard to make an analogy to World War II, where a democratic Germany only rose after the crushing defeat of the Nazis. Wouldn’t it be better if Banja Luka fell?

Some of our feelings were, quite frankly, emotional. Holbrooke and I had separately visited the city just after the war started in 1992. After seeing bearded Serb militia men terrorize a Muslim population squeezed into a ghetto and prohibited from going to work or school, we both had the same reaction: Banja Luka was a place of pure evil.

Over dinner with my wife on the night of Sept. 16, Holbrooke and I thrashed through what he might say to Tudjman. While Holbrooke had his instructions, he also felt that the fast-evolving situation on the ground in Bosnia gave him enough scope to move in a different direction. We both saw the advantages — and inherent justice — of the Serbs losing Banja Luka. But Holbrooke also focused on the practical. The United States and its European allies had endorsed a peace plan based on a 51-49 split of territory between the Federation of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats and the Serbs. Holbrooke thought there was no point in the Croatian and Bosnian forces taking territory that they would have to give up in a peace settlement. He also hoped that Banja Luka, the only significant Serb-majority urban area in Bosnia, might produce a more moderate leadership that could eventually challenge the political dominance of the extreme nationalists. I knew that Tudjman had long coveted Banja Luka as part of his project for a greater Croatia, and I was afraid that if he got his hands on the place, we might never get him to return it to a future Bosnian government.

Even when he arrived at the presidential palace for our meeting with Tudjman the next day, Holbrooke had not finally decided on his message. We ducked into the men’s room for a quick last conference. (We knew Tudjman taped all his conversations, but we hoped the sound of running water might provide some cover.)

In the end, it was the humanitarian issues that decided it for Holbrooke. While Banja Luka’s Serb leaders had inflicted incredible cruelty on the city’s Muslim and Croat population, Banja Luka was home to more than 200,000 civilians, most of whom bore no responsibility for the atrocities. In the previous month, 100,000 Serb refugees — displaced by the ongoing Croatian offensive — had arrived in the city. As we discussed what might happen if the Croatian Army moved into the city, Holbrooke was not willing to inflict more misery on so many innocent civilians.

Having finally decided what to say, Holbrooke needed to persuade Tudjman. The Croatian president was a rigid figure who considered himself and his country far superior to the “non-Western” Serbs and Bosnians. Holbrooke understood Tudjman’s overriding desire to be treated as a confidant and ally of the United States. In the meeting, Holbrooke made the Croatian leader feel as if he were co-directing U.S. policy. Without uttering a single threat, he got what he wanted.

Fifteen years later, I do not know if we made the right decision. Bosnia might today be a more unified and successful state if the extremists responsible for the war had been crushed instead of getting a continuing — and disruptive — role after the war. The collapse of Banja Luka might have loosened Milosevic’s grip on Serbia, and the Kosovo War might not have been necessary.

Richard Holbrooke knew full well that the message he gave Tudjman about Banja Luka would determine the fate of Bosnia — and the region — for years to come. He understood that this was a matter of life and death, and he placed a premium on preserving the largest number of lives. We can only speculate about the counterfactual, but we do know that Holbrooke capitalized on the new military balance in Bosnia to negotiate a peace agreement at Dayton. While far from perfect, it ended the war. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people survived that war thanks to Richard Holbrooke.

Peter W. Galbraith served as U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 1993-1998.


Gahl Burt

I worked for Henry Kissinger at the State Department from 1973-1977 and met Richard in 1977 when he came in to serve in the Carter administration. We were just acquaintances then, but I got to know him better in Berlin, where my husband was the U.S. ambassador from 1985-1987 and where we maintain close ties.

Richard became the ambassador in 1993, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. He was not considered a German scholar or even a European expert, but the fact that he became a very successful ambassador to Germany and then assistant secretary for European affairs did not surprise me at all. Richard always had a knack of knowing what he did not know, and either staying away from it (i.e., the Middle East) or learning what he needed to know. So, you can imagine my shock, some years later, when he proposed the idea of the American Academy in Berlin.

It was a very Holbrooke idea, replacing a military institution with an institute of culture, and it wasn’t easy to raise the money for yet another German/American institution. But he was never one to be deterred, and we did it by brute force. Henry Kissinger liked to say about him, “If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just say yes. If you say no, you will eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful.”

Richard was exceptionally bright and strategic. He would always place himself in the right place at the right time. You couldn’t be in his presence without marveling at how he could think outside the box. Shortly after he was named the special representative for AfPak, he insisted that both leaders, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, come to Washington together. He would not let them come separately. And he insisted that all of the cabinet-level meetings take place together as well. He was a big believer in civil society and institutions that could help these countries get on their feet, but he told me many times this was the toughest job he’d ever had. I sensed this summer that he was down, but Richard was not one to stay down, and he was never one to give up.

He could be very tough, it’s true. But once you came to know Richard, you realized that there was a big heart underneath the bluster. His impatience and insensitivity were often cited, but he actually cared more deeply about the human condition than almost anyone I know. Just ask people at the Asia Society or Refugees International, to name a few of the NGOs that he helped establish or lent his considerable skill to.

I don’t know of anyone else who could traverse so many different strata of people. Last night, the calls were coming in from President Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, and President Obama, and Hillary Clinton was there at his bedside. He could have friendships with all of these very different people and yet love them all and appreciate them all in their own way. And therefore his network became probably the most remarkable of anyone I have ever known. He loved knitting this whole patchwork together, and he did it expertly.

On Monday night, while I was at the hospital, I looked around at his very youthful staff, and they were devastated, to the person. He had assembled the best and the brightest; these are kids in their 20s and 30s. He was a wonderful mentor and relished the role.

I was struck the other week watching him on morning television, when he referenced Mika Brzezinski’s dad, Willie Geist’s dad, and Mark Halperin’s father. He knew the fathers and now, he knew the sons and daughters. Richard died before his time, but the mark he left on many, many institutions will be felt for years and decades to come. He will be sorely missed and never replaced in our hearts.

Gahl Burt, a former State Department and White House official, is vice chair of the American Academy in Berlin.


Jacob Weisberg

Some years ago, I reviewed Richard Holbrooke’s book To End a War: From Sarajevo to Dayton and Beyond in Slate. The title of the article, which was about how Holbrooke settled the Bosnia conflict through sheer force of personality was, “Obnoxious for Peace.” My point was that Holbrooke had turned his less admirable personal qualities to positive use, badgering the Clinton administration into intervening in the Balkans and then bullying the warring parties into the agreement that stopped a brutal war. I did dwell, perhaps excessively, on the great diplomat’s reputation for flattery and careerism.

Not long after, I ran into Holbrooke’s wife, Kati Marton, at a cocktail party and steeled myself for the inevitable dressing down. “Dick was so hurt by your article. I don’t think he is speaking to you,” she said. Then Kati paused and added with a sly grin, “But I thought you got him exactly right.” Holbrooke did not stay mad at me for long, and in the years since, I grew not only to admire him all the more but also to genuinely like him. Who has ever worked so tirelessly, intelligently, and effectively, to promote American values and interests abroad? But one side thought has stayed with me. What a wonderful marriage, I thought, in which the wife is allowed an independent perspective on the husband.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group.

Jack Chow

Among the many accomplishments in Richard Holbrooke’s iconic diplomatic career, arguably the broadest, most enduring — although perhaps also the least well-known — was his breakthrough work on HIV/AIDS. Before Holbrooke, the State Department’s diplomats rarely mentioned the epidemic. Diplomats of the post Cold War era were trained in the negotiable currency of the geopolitical realm: missiles, trade agreements, and confidence-building measures — not condoms or intravenous drug use. Holbrooke shattered the taboo against talking about the human behaviors and choices that spread the disease. And through sheer will and energy, he advanced the global health diplomacy movement, one that has gone on to help millions of people in poor regions worldwide.

In January 2000, I came to the State Department’s global affairs office with a mission to escalate Foggy Bottom’s role in health, especially on HIV/AIDS. By then, the pandemic had raged throughout Africa and threatened to accelerate in all regions of the world. Just a month before, in December 1999, Holbrooke, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had taken a 12-day trip to sub-Saharan Africa, which convinced him that AIDS was a compelling international security issue.

This epiphany motivated Holbrooke to take action, and he brought the issue to the U.N. Security Council for a special session in January 2000. It was the first time a health issue had been brought forward as a threat to international security. A whole movement was inspired, galvanized around the idea that threats to humankind come not just from weapons or bombs but from this terrible virus — and that both needed to be combated with equal fervor. Holbrooke’s diplomacy culminated in a resolution about HIV/AIDS among U.N. peacekeepers and the organization of a special session of the entire U.N. General Assembly to discuss the pandemic. Two years later, Holbrooke’s farewell address as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council was devoted to criticizing the body’s approach to AIDS. He called for more HIV testing and advised that peacekeepers needed to be counseled on how to prevent the spread of the disease and how to avoid contracting it themselves.

Back in the private sector, Holbrooke became president and CEO of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, then a small organization with few members. He energized the organization with furious networking and force of personality such that the GBC blossomed into a major player in global health. Holbrooke had an uncanny knack for zeroing in on conventional wisdom, and he relentlessly questioned underlying assumptions if he believed them to be off track. He challenged the standing practice of voluntary HIV counseling and testing, calling that strategy a “weak link” and arguing that people tend to avoid testing out of fear of knowing whether they are infected. Instead, Holbrooke called for public health authorities to make testing an opt-out measure, allowing people to choose not to be tested should they feel uncomfortable or unready, but keeping the test as the default option. While heavily debated at the time, by 2007 both the World Health Organization and UNAIDS adopted the opt-out strategy, which they said would reach 200 million more people.

Holbrooke’s successes kicked off an era of general success for public health initiatives. Today, new institutions drive the field. The United States is investing $25 billion in a presidential AIDS plan, PEPFAR, that works in 15 heavily hit countries. Several countries have joined the U.S. in appointing ambassadors on HIV/AIDS: Australia, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, with hopefully more to follow. Likewise, in 2007 a group of foreign ministers expressed their intent to put health higher on the agenda of international affairs, in the so-called Oslo Declaration.

Holbrooke instinctually seized upon the devastating impact of AIDS in Africa to provoke presidents and prime ministers to respond with urgency. His arguments recast the thinking of two prominent global health institutions — the joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization — where top experts are typically resistant to changing course, and got them to adopt a new way to test for HIV in developing countries. He practiced health diplomacy as if he were also a doctor: empathic yet forceful with the remedy, whether palatable or not. He deserves exceptional kudos for showing the world how to mobilize against a feared and often misunderstood disease. As a result of his inspired statecraft, millions of people in impoverished regions owe their health and their lives to him.

Jack C. Chow was senior advisor on global health at the State Department’s Office of Global Affairs, 2000-2001, and was U.S. Ambassador on Global HIV/AIDS from 2001-2003.


Fritz Stern

From the very beginning I was impressed by Richard’s fierce intelligence and burning ambition to understand and, if possible, change the world. We first met in 1969 in Princeton: Both of us were opposed to the Vietnam war, which we thought was injurious to our national interests. He was 29 at the time (I was somewhat older), but I don’t think the gap in our ages ever made any difference. We thought of each other as contemporaries.

The following year, for a variety of personal reasons, he invited me and my family to visit him in Morocco, where he had been made head of the Peace Corps. I came to admire more deeply his personality, the rapidity of his learning, his highly nuanced Francophilia (he was fluent in the language), and the way he got on with Peace Corps volunteers and with the Moroccan political leadership. I thought of him as an ideal American proconsul. The combination of his profound knowledge and his extraordinary analytical skill was accompanied by a tactical energy and an ability to see not only all aspects of a given situation, but all of its ramifications as well: A man of that talent and ambition doesn’t remain director of the Peace Corps in Morocco for very long.

He was wonderfully open and at peace in Morocco, though. We spent our days talking about writing, which was a passion of his — though it was never more important for him than action. He understood, already in 1970, that the success of our foreign policy depended on building relationships — not just between countries, but between people. He was capable of admiration of other people, and he was a quick judge of human beings. He had a particularly intuitive grasp of the distinction between capable and less capable colleagues, and didn’t always disguise his views.

Almost immediately upon his nomination as ambassador to Germany in 1993, he got in touch with me, and asked me to become his Senior Advisor in Bonn. We arrived there at the same time in October, 1993. He quickly came to be perceived as quintessentially American in his openness, his energy, and his controlled candor. Europeans immediately understood him to be one of the most appealing, constructive American diplomats. I doubt that NATO’s expansion would have happened had he not seized the initiative in those years. Later, of course, he went to the Balkans to devote his considerable energies to stopping a war.

Once, at a celebratory occasion in Richard’s honor, on Nov. 11, 2004, by chance an anniversary of the Great War’s Armistice Day, I speculated about what might have happened if Holbrooke as a young statesman might have been in Europe in the summer of 1914:

He would have gone on alert as soon as the Austrian Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. When he first heard rumors of the Austrian ultimatum on Serbia, he would have jumped on the Orient Express and gone to Belgrade. There he would have told the Serbs: “For God’s sake, accept the ultimatum. Cheat later.” Before adding sotto voce, “I have in my pocket evidence of your complicity in the crime at Sarajevo.”

He then would have been on his way to Vienna: “You’ll destroy your multi-national empire, already attainted, if you allow the Germans to push you into war. Don’t do it.” On to Berlin: “You’re going to risk your growing strength, your clear ascendancy, by linking yourself to a living corpse, the Austrian Empire? For a Habsburg — your ancient enemy?” On to St. Petersburg: “Have you learned nothing from 1905? Another war, another revolution?” He then would have come to London, threw his arms around David Lloyd George and said, “David, you musn’t go to war. All your social reforms will perish and some future historian will write a book about The Strange Death of Liberal England.”

Yes, the Great War could have been averted if only Richard Holbrooke had been around.

Stretching back to those days in Morocco, to the last time I saw him just a couple of weeks ago at a meeting at a dinner for the American Academy in Berlin (which he founded and which we may regard as his greatest lasting legacy: symbol and reality of the civilian-cultural outreach of the United States), he remained a genuine, quiet deep-down patriot, ever concerned with the fate of the United States. His death is a horror, and a loss to me of a friend, and of a much, much admired contemporary. It is a loss to the nation of a talent that had earned worldwide recognition, a talent that could still have still done so much for us.

Fritz Stern is University Professor emeritus at Columbia University, and the author of Five Germanys I Have Known.

Andrew Swift is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
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