Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Global Trouble-Shooter, Dies

Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Global Trouble-Shooter, Dies
Richard Holbrooke fell ill on Dec. 10 while working at State Department headquarters in Washington. The State Department announced his death in a statement today. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Richard Holbrooke, a global trouble-shooter for the U.S. who took on such issues as ethnic warring in the former Yugoslavia, the start of diplomatic relations with China and managing the Obama administration’s engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, has died. He was 69.

He had undergone surgery to repair a tear in his aorta after falling ill on Dec. 10 while working at State Department headquarters in Washington. The State Department announced his death in a statement today.

“One of his friends and admirers once said that, ‘If you’re not on the team and you’re in his way, God help you,’” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Like so many presidents before me, I am grateful that Richard Holbrooke was on my team, as are the American people.”

Under four Democratic presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Obama, Holbrooke worked on some of the most important diplomatic issues of his era, starting with Vietnam in the Johnson White House.

“Of this generation of Americans there is virtually no one who has had as long, sustained and brilliant attention to the nation’s interests abroad than has Richard Holbrooke,” said Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to India and friend of Holbrooke. “Since the Vietnam War, there has been no issue of national significance that he has not paid attention to or worked on. His range is truly extraordinary.”

Intellect and Ego

Holbrooke was renowned for his vast intellect, an ego to match, and an arsenal of weapons ranging from flattery and patience to anger and, when necessary, shouting.

“I wouldn’t call it conversation,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, told the New Yorker magazine for a 2009 profile of Holbrooke. “It’s this sort of breathless monologue that you can only engage by interrupting. Dick is an advocate. He almost always has a case to make.”

Holbrooke was probably best known for his work as Clinton’s special mediator to end the war in Bosnia, which culminated in a 20-day negotiating session at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The resulting Dayton peace accord, as it came to be known, divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serbian Republic.

In “To End a War,” his 1998 memoir, Holbrooke said the U.S. and other nations were late to respond to atrocities by Bosnia’s Serbs because of a misguided sense that no outsider could resolve the hatred among Bosnians, Serbs and Croats.

‘Not Foreordained’

“Yugoslavia’s tragedy was not foreordained,” he wrote. “It was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal, political, and financial gain.”

In 1998 Holbrooke accepted the challenge of mediating another conflict in the Balkans, the war in Kosovo. Negotiating with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- the Serb nationalist who died behind bars in 2006 while facing charges of crimes against humanity -- Holbrooke helped win a cease-fire agreement that averted a NATO attack on Belgrade, though only temporarily.

When further peace talks failed five months later, NATO launched 78 days of air strikes that ultimately pressured Milosevic to withdraw troops from Kosovo.

Tension and occasional violence continued in the Balkans after Holbrooke’s involvement. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Holbrooke and Paddy Ashdown, who was the European Union’s special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, warned in an October 2008 column that Bosnia was again “in real danger of collapse.”

Wall Street Work

Holbrooke was a denizen of Wall Street and the nonprofit community during Republican George W. Bush’s eight years as president. He was vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a private-equity firm in New York City, and chaired the Asia Society, the American Academy in Berlin and the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

He served as a foreign-policy adviser to Hillary Clinton from her U.S. Senate days through her campaign against Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination. The warming of relations that led to Obama making Clinton his secretary of state also opened the door for Holbrooke to join the administration, and Obama named him special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan days after becoming president in January 2009.

Clinton said in a statement that Holbrooke “helped shape our history, manage our perilous present and secure our future.” She called him “the consummate diplomat, able to stare down dictators and stand up for America’s interests and values even under the most difficult circumstances.”

Economic Development

Holbrooke spent the past two years visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan and seeking support from allies to help promote economic development.

For months, he dealt with speculation that his days as envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan were numbered.

A June 2010 Rolling Stone magazine story that led to General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, being relieved of duty described him at one point making a show of being reluctant to open an e-mail from Holbrooke; a McChrystal aide, not named by the magazine, explained that the general considered Holbrooke a “wounded animal.”

In a statement on Dec. 11, Obama called Holbrooke “a towering figure in American foreign policy, a critical member of my Afghanistan and Pakistan team and a tireless public servant who has won the admiration of the American people and people around the world.”

2014 and Beyond

Holbrooke said last month the Obama administration hoped to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. He emphasized the U.S. wouldn’t then turn its back on the country, a mistake he said the Soviet Union made in 1989.

Addressing reporters in Washington on Oct. 29, Holbrooke talked up a newly signed trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan that, he said, constituted “a political breakthrough” that was barely noticed by U.S. media.

“I cannot stress too highly that unless the two countries close that historic gap and work closely together, this war will go on, no matter how successful we are elsewhere, for the simplest of reasons -- the Taliban will exploit differences between the two countries and move from one country to the other,” he said.

James Hoge, longtime editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, said his friend Holbrooke “accepted the most difficult assignments, often at great personal cost. He was an inspiring leader to those who worked closely with him.”

Early Life

Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was born April 24, 1941, in New York City, the first of two sons of Dan Holbrooke, a doctor, and Trudi Moos, the daughter of a leather exporter in Germany, according to a 1998 New York Times profile. Both his parents, as Jews, fled the Nazis in the 1930s.

Holbrooke graduated from Scarsdale High School, in the suburbs of New York City, and from Brown University. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1962, learned Vietnamese and was sent to Vietnam, where he represented the Agency for International Development in the Mekong Delta and then worked as staff assistant to U.S. Ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Pentagon Papers

At the Johnson White House, he wrote one volume of what became known as the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that later would be leaked to the New York Times. In 1968 he was part of the U.S. delegation in Paris, led by W. Averell Harriman, that opened negotiations with North Vietnam.

His experience left a deep impression.

“I must conclude that our goals in Vietnam did not justify the immense costs of the war,” Holbrooke said at conference last September on the U.S. experience in Southeast Asia.

He said the U.S. “pursued a policy that would have denied Vietnam to the enemy only as long as our ground troops remained, but would not have left the Saigon government strong enough to survive on its own. When we send our young men and women overseas to fight for their country, we must be sure they’re really fighting for our vital national security interests.”

As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under President Jimmy Carter, Holbrooke was in charge of relations with China when diplomatic ties were normalized in 1978. In a 2008 column, he recalled that he and others in the Carter administration “managed to keep our intense negotiations completely secret” for two years leading up to the accord.

Firm and Flexible

He described the Chinese negotiating style as “firm on principle, flexible on specifics.”

President Bill Clinton named him U.S. ambassador to Germany, then assistant secretary of state for Europe, then ambassador to the United Nations.

At the UN, Holbrooke persuaded other countries to recognize AIDS as a national-security issue, said Nancy Soderberg, who served as Holbrooke’s alternate. She described him as “a force of nature, personally and intellectually.”

In between his government posts he worked as Peace Corps director in Morocco, editor of Foreign Policy, vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston and managing director of Lehman Brothers. He collaborated on Clark Clifford’s memoir, “Counsel to the President.”

Holbrooke’s 1995 marriage to Kati Marton, an author and radio host, was his third. His first two marriages ended in divorce and produced two sons, Anthony and David.

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