Indispensable Holbrooke Leaves the World Bereft: Albert R. Hunt

Charles de Gaulle, who famously said the graveyards are filled with indispensable men, was wrong. Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was that rare indispensable man.

Holbrooke, who died of a shattered aorta at 69 last week, was President Barack Obama’s envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was the most innovative and successful U.S. diplomat of the last half-century.

In Washington, a town full of larger-than-life figures, few equaled Holbrooke: He was brilliant, egotistical, loyal, strategic, charming, manipulative, caring, demanding, compassionate and funny, sometimes all in the same conversation. He was a force like no other.

Although now familiar, his career is worth briefly recapping.

A senior at Brown University in 1962, he couldn’t decide whether to be executive editor of the New York Times or secretary of state. When the Times turned him down for a job, he joined the Foreign Service. He served in Vietnam and was a special aide to two ambassadors. Back in Washington, he became an adviser to the president of the United States, and wrote a chapter of the historic Pentagon Papers chronicling the history of the Vietnam War. He was still in his 20s.

He then directed the Peace Corps in Morocco and was editor of Foreign Policy magazine. He tried his hand at business and finance, working at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Credit Suisse Group AG and a private-equity firm, though as one of his bosses recalled, other than the bonuses it didn’t turn him on; his abiding passion was government and public service, particularly foreign policy.

Relations With China

In the Carter administration he was assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, helping to broker diplomatic relations with China.

When President Bill Clinton was elected, Holbrooke wanted to be ambassador to Japan but settled for Germany. Although he was in that post less than a year, almost two decades later, few Americans are more respected there. He founded The American Academy in Berlin, which in only a decade and a half has elevated the cultural and educational exchanges between Germany and the U.S.

His most legendary achievement was the 1995 Bosnian peace accords brokered at Dayton, Ohio, where his combination of skill, ruthless toughness, patience, persuasiveness and perseverance forced some thugs to back down, stopping the genocide and saving thousands of lives. It’s difficult to imagine another diplomat who could have pulled this off.

Swaying Jesse Helms

At the end of the Clinton administration he became the most formidable ambassador to the United Nations in modern memory. He persuaded Senator Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative, to support crucial U.S. funding for the international organization, and remarkably helped convince the North Carolina Republican to switch his position and support international AIDS-prevention efforts. (Helms, who’d been a vocal opponent, had a farewell session for Holbrooke when he left the UN; the ambassador received a standing ovation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Helms chaired.)

The dispossessed -- AIDS sufferers, refugees, victims of repressive regimes -- had few more passionate champions than Holbrooke. He was a perpetual profile in courage, often risking his life on missions from the Balkans to Asia.

Substantive Inferiors

He was no saint. He had as many detractors as supporters. He could be brutal and insensitively vain. In Holbrooke’s most recent job, both the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and his aides, as well as functionaries in Obama’s White House and National Security Council, sniped incessantly at the ambassador. They thought he treated them as substantive inferiors; they were.

He took issue with references to his huge ego. Once, when I wrote about this trait, I likened it to a Texas saying that “it ain’t bragging if you can do it.” Holbrooke wanted to know which Texan said that.

The ambassador, a title he enjoyed, was comfortable in settings as diverse as Manhattan salons, dinners with leading political, business and human-rights advocates in world capitals, journalistic groupies in Washington or refugee camps.

Loyalty was a Holbrooke hallmark that he also evoked in others, including powerful friends such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the exceptional staff he assembled on the Afghanistan-Pakistan mission. Working in the smallish offices on the State Department’s ground floor -- not prime real estate in a prestige-conscious venue -- this diverse group shared a total commitment to their challenging task and to their leader.

Lessons From Bundy

It was difficult to talk to Holbrooke about his last role without recalling a laudatory review he wrote two years ago of Gordon Goldstein’s book about McGeorge Bundy and the Vietnam War. Bundy was a brilliant and arrogant national security aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; at age 27, he wrote the “memoirs” of former Secretary of War Henry Stimson and was the dean of faculty at Harvard College at 34. Years later, Goldstein’s book chronicles, Bundy realized the most important undertaking of his life, the Vietnam War, was a failure.

With his deep knowledge of history, Holbrooke saw parallels. The Afghanistan war, despite last week’s rhetoric from the White House, isn’t going well; too much of the agenda is being set by the military.

Vietnam Parallel

If it ends badly there will be another parallel to Vietnam. Just as Bundy became convinced that it would have been different had Jack Kennedy lived, there will be a haunting, if inexplicable, sense that Holbrooke could have devised a better end game. The rationale would be that only Holbrooke could somehow achieve something like that.

The stories over the past week that depict the tragedy of his inability to ever become secretary of state miss the point. He might have been another George C. Marshall; very few, however, who achieved that position had Holbrooke’s record of triumphs that so affected people’s lives.

To the end he was a calculating, tough-minded, pragmatic idealist who deeply believed that America -- mistakes like Vietnam and Iraq notwithstanding -- is the best hope of the world and has an obligation to fulfill that mission.

Dick Holbrooke was a true patriot.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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