Remembering the Unquiet American

A fond retrospective on Richard Holbrooke, America’s most ambitious diplomat.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Richard Holbrooke came as a package. To know the man in full was to appreciate the most important contents. His was a unique combination of talent, intellect, energy, courage, conviction, gumption, panache, and compassion. Many of those who "got" Richard were confident that he would, someday, receive proper credit for the contributions he made to his country and the world. However, few of us anticipated how quickly that would happen once he was gone. It certainly came as a surprise to me, and it would have been considerable consolation to him, especially since his last mission — as President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan — had been as thankless as it was grueling.

The State Department’s announcement of his death early in the evening of Dec. 13, 2010, triggered an outpouring of testimonials from around the world and from the various realms in which he had been a seismic presence: from heads of state and international luminaries; from representatives of humanitarian organizations, especially those that fought for the rights of refugees and battled against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; and from journalists and columnists who not only wrote about him, used him as a source, and let him use them to advance his many causes, but who also saw him as a master of their trade.

In those weeks of mourning, my mind kept going back two decades, to a crisp Sunday morning in the spring of 1991, near the end of Richard’s long interlude on Wall Street when Republicans controlled the White House. My wife Brooke and I were spending a weekend at a home with a tennis court and pool that Richard owned in one of the plummier exurban communities of central Connecticut. After a vigorous set of Canadian doubles and a swim, we went to a brunch at a neighbor’s house. Richard’s eyes lit up when he saw that their recreational facilities included a trampoline on the far side of a manicured lawn. After hastily paying respects to our hosts, he excused himself, went back outside, pulled off his shoes, rolled up the cuffs of his slacks, and clambered onto the canvas. He insisted that I join him. The result was an exceedingly amateurish blend of gymnastic duet and duel — sometimes semicoordinated, sometimes dangerously competitive, and constantly accompanied by talk, most of it coming from Richard.

The subject, naturally, was world affairs. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were coming apart at the seams. Richard was overflowing with observations, historical analogies, and, above all, strong opinions about how the U.S. government was responding. He was scathing about the George H. W. Bush administration’s passivity toward the upheaval in the Balkans, which was careening into genocidal mayhem, but he gave the president high marks for supporting Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms that would soon lead to the largely peaceful disintegration of the USSR.

The incident was an antic example of Richard’s knack for combining serious business with exuberant pleasure. His business was his pleasure; and, whatever his day job, the only business he really cared about was foreign policy. The work he so desperately wanted to do all his life was fun, even when it was exhausting. Partly for that reason, being his friend was also fun — and, often, also exhausting. That may be why it didn’t seem entirely zany to us to be discussing the meltdown of European communism while bouncing into the air, sweating profusely, risking bodily harm, and caring not a whit about what the other guests, peering out the window, thought about the spectacle.

To many admirers and critics alike, ambition was Richard’s most conspicuous quality. Less appreciated was the distinction he made between achievement of goals and the attainment of position, which he saw as a means to that end, not the end in itself. Moreover, he believed that the combination of skill and will that he prized in himself could change the course of events only if it was part of a team effort. No question he wanted, if at all possible, to be the captain; if not that, then the star player; if not that, then at least on the field; and if not that, then a forceful independent voice, exhorting from the sidelines; but never, ever a passive spectator.

Richard loved forensic combat. His strategy was, first, to establish the cosmic importance of whatever was most on his mind and, second, to make equally clear that his was the best, if not the only, sensible course of action. This take-no-prisoners style often aroused resistance and resentment — or, in the case of Henry Kissinger (who is no pushover), a backhanded compliment: "If Richard calls 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."

In my own experience, I found, far more often than not, that Richard was in command of the facts, rigorous in his logic, and compelling in the essence of his position. Sure, he tended to overstate the extent to which the fate of the earth, or civilization, or at least the supreme national interest was at stake. But any sensible target of his browbeating should have the good sense to discount the hyperbole and pay attention to the nub of his argument.

At the same time, while he was a dazzlingly, sometimes excessively good talker, he was a good listener as well. If the thrust-and-parry of debate exposed a weakness in his position, he would adjust his analysis, modify his recommendation, then return to the offensive. Richard was never bashful about enlisting history on his side — or, for that matter, anticipating what future historians would say. In the 1990s, during high-stress moments in the Situation Room, the Cabinet Room, or the Oval Office, he would lecture those around the table, including the president, on how future generations would not forgive us if we didn’t take decisive action to stop the latest outrage in the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, or in Southeast Asia. Eyes might roll, but the net effect was the galvanizing of a consensus, led by Bill Clinton. Talk would then turn to action — an alchemy of which Richard was a wizard.

Eulogizing Richard in January 2011, President Clinton recalled, "He never was in a meeting in his life when he wasn’t thinking, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ He loved the doers." He added that Richard was the ultimate doer himself. "I loved the guy," he said. "Doing in diplomacy saves lives."

The same is true of NGOs like Refugees International, which was founded in 1979 in response to the Indochina refugee crisis. Richard championed that cause from the State Department in the seventies, then chaired the board of the organization in the late ’90s.

Richard was, at core, a happy warrior (the Wordsworth poem by that title, written after Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, was a favorite of his). He had a preternatural self-confidence and a Joe Palooka resilience that enabled him to rebound from body blows. But ambitious as he was, he was also realistic about the capriciousness of fate, especially in his line of work. He’d had good luck when Averell Harriman took him to Paris for the Vietnam Peace Talks and, again, nearly a decade later, when Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance made him, at 36, assistant secretary of state for East Asia. Yet the brass ring he most wanted eluded his grasp, repeatedly and narrowly. He was runner-up for secretary of state when Bill Clinton chose Madeleine Albright; he would very likely have been Al Gore’s pick in 2000 if it weren’t for the Florida recount and the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, and John Kerry’s if the 2004 election had gone the other way. Hillary Clinton might well have chosen Richard to be her secretary of state if the 2008 presidential race had turned out the way she hoped.

Since he died, I’ve found myself wondering what kind of secretary of state he would have made. A good one, I’ll bet — a very good one. Had he occupied the post he’d so long hoped for, I can easily imagine that his inexhaustible and often frustrated capacity for striving would have been targeted on achieving as much as possible while he had maximum clout and the freedom to exercise it.

This was, however, not a topic of conversation between us. In the many intense private talks we had over the years, he didn’t waste much time agonizing or fantasizing over what might have been. Instead, he concentrated on how best to play whatever hand he was dealt and beat the house.

That acceptance of adversity as a fact of life combined with a refusal to let it get him down and a gritty confidence that he could make his own luck carried over into his attitude toward the opportunities and challenges facing the U.S. His was a purpose-driven, utilitarian view of policy-making and diplomacy: Figure out what will advance American interests and defend American values; make a hard-headed calculation about the risks and costs, enlist key allies, find the best means of subduing your adversaries, and then get the job done.

A corollary of his belief in human agency was a deep interest in the psychology of those he was trying to persuade or pressure. During the Bosnia peace talks in the mid-’90s, he spent what sometimes seemed an inordinate amount of time on tactics and even seating charts. During a visit I made to Dayton early in the negotiations, I asked him what the principal issues were. "Never mind the substance," he said. "The whole point at this stage is to get these guys in a frame of mind where they want an agreement. The substance will fall into place later." My wife Brooke was with me on that trip. Knowing that she and I had lived in Belgrade for two years in the early ’70s, Richard seated her next to Slobodan Milosevic during a surreal dinner at the Dayton Racquet Club for the assembled peacemakers (not yet successful) and war criminals (not yet indicted). Richard coached her on how to play to the Serbian dictator’s vanity in nudging him toward concessions on several unresolved issues. She made some headway in getting him to ease an embargo of energy supplies to Bosnia. "Way to go, Brookie," said Richard afterward. "It’s the little stuff that makes the big stuff possible."

On another occasion, I asked him how our exertions in the Balkans fit into the larger goals of American foreign policy. Again, he was dismissive of the premise. "Forget the sweep-of-history crap," he said. "Our goal is to end a war." Those last four words became the title of his 1998 book on the peace he, more than anyone, made in Bosnia.

In much the same spirit, Richard refused to associate himself with any of the competing schools in academe or opposing camps among the policy wonks. He cared only about the practice of foreign policy. To him, theory was, almost by definition, suspect. Not that he was averse to bold ideas — he just didn’t want to clutter up the discussion of the present and future with anything that smacked of library stacks or, worse, ideological dogma.

I once made the mistake of invoking Immanuel Kant in support of the enlargement of NATO and the European Union — a big and controversial idea that Richard had long favored, but not because it would have pleased a professor in Königsberg who had been dead for nearly two hundred years. "Save that guy for some seminar in New Haven," he snapped.

He found most doctrines too neat to be useful in the real world. Worse, disputes over them tended to stoke the polarization of the political environment, undercutting bipartisan support for the necessary degree of consistency in foreign policy from one administration to the next.

Richard’s long paper trail of muscular, lucid prose is rich in active verbs and notably free of words that end in ism. To his ear, the suffix connoted abstract concepts that provoked pointless bickering and posed policy options in terms of false dichotomies. For him, pragmatism and idealism, exceptionalism and universalism, patriotism and internationalism were not either/or choices. He believed in all six, but also in the need to reconcile them insofar as possible or to apply them in different ratios, depending on the situation at hand.

The same went for Realpolitik and its putative antonym, Moralpolitik, as manifest in humanitarian intervention, notably in the Balkans. Richard saw hard and soft power as the yin and yang of the American brand. He believed that the U.S. had enough of both kinds of power to defend the weak around the world.

He was also wary of grand strategy — any grand strategy. "Diplomacy is not like chess," he once told Michael Ignatieff. "It’s more like jazz — a constant improvisation on a theme." As both a student and practitioner of statecraft, he saw master plans as tending to blinker policy makers, causing them to miss or misread indications that their theory of the case is faulty or that circumstances have changed in ways that call for new assumptions, goals, and responses.

Richard’s career was bookended by two cautionary tales about precisely that danger. In 1962, the year he entered the Foreign Service, the Kennedy administration had already made containing Soviet and Chinese expansion into Indochina an objective vital to the national interest. As a result, there were already more than 3,000 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam. The consequence was to propel the U.S. into a quagmire, which led to the downfall of JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. Almost 40 years later, with the Cold War over, no hostile superpower to contain, and 9/11 confronting the U.S. with a new enemy, George W. Bush declared an open-ended "global war on terror." It began with the deceptively easy eviction of the Taliban regime in Kabul. Seven years and 800 U.S. and coalition casualties later, Richard, as a private citizen, wrote in his column for the Washington Post that the conflict in Afghanistan was likely to exceed the Vietnam misadventure as the longest war in American history.

Once he joined the Obama administration, he kept his sense of déjà vu to himself, even as he worked tirelessly to avert a Vietnam-like debacle. He kept pushing for what he saw as a better balance between military might and robust diplomacy. In his view, there was no military solution to this conflict — as he said, "no unconditional surrender, not even total clarity on who the enemy is." Rather, it was a war that, by its prolonged and inconclusive nature, threatened to become a loser for the U.S.

The military goal, in his view, was to create the favorable conditions for diplomacy. As U.S. and coalition forces made inroads against al-Qaeda and the more militant Taliban, it would be easier to secure political deals in Afghanistan, reinforced by a regional diplomatic settlement, thereby making possible the steady, responsible withdrawal of American forces.

Richard knew that "AfPak" would be his last government assignment. It was also his most frustrating one, although he didn’t put it that way. Instead, he occasionally commented on the curious trajectory his public service had followed and the paradoxical way it was coming to an end. He’d held posts at the State Department twice before, both times as an assistant secretary. He’d presided in the ’70s over East Asia and in the ’90s over Europe out of well-appointed suites on the sixth floor, which, in that building, is considered close to heaven since it’s just below the Secretary’s office.

Here he was, back again in Foggy Bottom, but this time on the first floor, in cramped and inelegant quarters near the cafeteria. He took wry pleasure in showing off what he called his "hovel." It gave him a chance to laugh at the ironies that attended the drama — and occasional melodrama — of his life.

Richard was immensely proud. That pride could be — and, in his last years, frequently was — wounded. Yet there was ample room in his character for pride in his colleagues, especially the younger ones. Mentoring, for Richard, often meant pushing his protégés to higher positions often on higher floors of the building. That was one reason for the affection, admiration, and loyalty he engendered within his extended interagency team.

In addition to those who worked for him directly, Richard also convened a weekly meeting of about a hundred officials and experts from around government. He dubbed this body the Shura, an Arabic word for tribal counsel of the sort that Afghans used to govern themselves. I sat in on its meetings twice, once when Richard was leading the discussion, and again shortly after he died.

The collegiality and sense of common purpose within the Shura were in marked contrast to tensions within the government as a whole over AfPak, especially between Richard and some at the White House. In the spring of 2010, the president’s national security advisor, General Jim Jones, tried to maneuver him toward the exit. Secretary Clinton went straight to Obama and insisted that nobody except either of them could fire Richard. Jones backed down and was gone seven months later. The showdown with Jones came to a head in April, shortly before Richard’s sixty-ninth birthday — or, as I remember him saying, "the beginning of my seventh decade on this extremely messed-up planet" (you could almost hear the italics when Richard was in full voice). His body was sending him warning signals. He heeded them only to the point of sometimes imagining, a bit wistfully, a saner existence, with time for reading, writing a memoir, and fun with his family.

A number of his friends formed a loose and benevolent cabal to persuade him to get out at a time of his own choosing, and the sooner the better, rather than letting himself be pushed out or, as we all feared, worked to death. Worried as I was about his health, I had trouble imagining him content to be back on the sidelines. As for Richard himself, he was determined not to give ammunition to his detractors by signaling that he was ready to quit. Still, he dropped a few hints that he might leave sometime after his seventieth birthday, perhaps in the summer or fall of 2011, assuming conditions in Afghanistan permitted the beginning of a drawdown of American forces.

Two months before he died, Richard ran into Larry Summers in the White House lobby. Larry introduced him to his 14-year-old stepdaughter, Maya, who had been having lunch with him in the White House Mess. She mentioned that she had some sense of what he was doing because she had read The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s novel set in Kabul. Richard, who had, of course, read the book and could quote whole passages, fixed his eyes on her and engaged her in lively conversation for twenty minutes. Never mind if he was late to his next meeting; he had found someone who understood what was at stake in his last mission — someone whose world will be the better for all the difference he had made in those many missions that came before.

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