Richard Holbrooke's Lonely Mission

By Alter, Jonathan; Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Richard Holbrooke's Lonely Mission


Alter, Jonathan, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter and Christopher Dickey

The late diplomat never lost his passion for peacemaking, but it turned out that some of his toughest adversaries were on his own side.

The memorial service at Washington's Kennedy Center last week had the trappings of a state funeral. President Barack Obama was there, former president Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan flew in for the occasion, as did scores of other dignitaries. The man they came to honor, Richard Holbrooke, had been a diplomat on and off for more than 40 years when he died last month at the age of 69. He might have been secretary of state, but never was, and may well have deserved a Nobel Prize for bringing the Bosnian war to an end in 1995, but never got it. Never mind. As Obama said in his tribute, "By the time I came to know Richard, his place in history was assured." Holbrooke would have gotten a chuckle out of it all, especially listening to the president paying such homage. He could have used some more of that support when he was still on the job.

Richard Holbrooke's last official title was "special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan," or SRAP in D.C. speak, and even his eulogizers last week acknowledged it was the toughest assignment of his life. Holbrooke was the diplomatic point man supposed to be sorting out the most complicated, most costly, and most dangerous of the wars that the United States is fighting. It involves so much more than Taliban bombs by the side of the road, or boots on the ground, or poppies raised for opium in Afghan valleys. At bottom, it's about nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is sometimes an ally, sometimes an enemy, of the American effort in Afghanistan.

If there are limits to murderous fanaticism, Pakistan is still trying to find them. In recent weeks, it has started to look like a society sliding toward madness. A treacherous young bodyguard guns down the distinguished governor of Punjab for objecting to the death sentence on a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Mobs--and even a group of young lawyers--hail the killer as a hero. This was the kind of crisis where Holbrooke's insights and his capacity for action could be hugely helpful, and in which he's sorely missed. "I loved the guy because he could do--and doing in diplomacy saves lives," said Bill Clinton.

What Holbrooke did, however, he did not always do gently, or subtly, or deferentially. He was famously arrogant and abrasive. When Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a very close friend of Holbrooke's, spoke, he called him "the quintessential Washington know-it-all." Bill Clinton said he was "a hurricane of eloquence and energy and force," but he'd "scream and claw and scratch and make you feel like you had a double-digit IQ if you didn't agree with him." On another occasion, a colleague observed: "His friends were amused by his antics. But if you weren't a friend, you found it hard to take."

Holbrooke's critics suggest (off the record, because they don't want to sound churlish now that he's gone) that he was his own worst enemy. But that's misleading. Interviews with those who knew Holbrooke in Kabul, Islamabad, New York, Brussels, and Washington make clear he had a great many adversaries. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai treated him with paranoid fury. Pakistan's leaders sometimes lied to him, and about him. The Taliban tried to take him out with sniper fire and suicide bombers. And among those who worked to undermine the man, even to the detriment of his vital mission, were at least a few people in the White House who understood neither the man nor, indeed, his mission.

"Dick Holbrooke would have been Obama's best ally," lamented Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, one of his contemporaries and closest friends. "Obama had just the right hammer he needed in Dick for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Obama's failure to see that--and his staff's failure to see that--really cost him and our country.

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