President Barack Obama eulogized the late Richard Holbrooke as a “leading light” of U.S. diplomacy whose career formed a chronicle of American foreign policy.
Holbrooke, who died Dec. 13 at the age of 69, was at the center of U.S. foreign affairs from the war against the communists in Vietnam to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“He was the leading light of a generation of American diplomats who came of age in Vietnam,” Obama said. “It was a generation that came to know the tragic limits and awesome possibilities of American power.”
Obama was among the dignitaries who gathered for a memorial service for Holbrooke, special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Those in attendance included former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Vice President Joe Biden, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Holbrooke was probably best known for his work as Bill 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 accords, as the agreement came to be known, divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serbian republic.
“I loved the guy because he could ‘do,’” the former president said, citing Holbrooke’s work on the Dayton accords. “‘Doing’ in diplomacy saves lives.”
Hillary Clinton said she and Holbrooke “were a team” and there was “simply no one like him in the world.”
“Richard was brilliant, blunt and he did fight until the final bell for what he believed in,” Clinton said. She said he so tenacious that he even followed her into a ladies room in Pakistan to make his case.
“The shear breadth of his knowledge and his thirst for more was staggering,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Some people’s minds are like steel traps. Richard’s was like a lint trap.”
Holbrooke’s wife, Kati Marton, his two sons and a stepdaughter also spoke about living in the swirl of U.S. diplomacy.
“A life of meaning is worth more than an easy one, or perhaps even a long one,” Marton said. Son David Holbrooke said that while he wished that his children had had more time with their grandfather, “my family is enormously proud of his legacy.”
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.
Obama and other speakers recalled Holbrooke’s efforts to end ethnic warring in the former Yugoslavia, open diplomatic relations with China and guide the administration’s engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, describing him as a global trouble-shooter for the U.S.
“By the time I came to know Richard, his place in history was assured,” Obama said. Still, the president said, Holbrooke agreed to take on the task of overseeing U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Richard was not comfortable on the sidelines,” Obama said. “He belonged in the arena.”
Holbrooke spent the past two years visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan and seeking support from allies to help promote economic development there.
Obama announced that his administration is establishing an annual Richard C. Holbrooke Award to recognize “Americans who have made especially meritorious contributions to diplomacy.”
“There are few people in any time, but certainly in our time, who can say, ‘I stopped a war, I made peace, I saved lives, I helped countries heal,’” Hillary Clinton said, closing the memorial service. “Richard Holbrooke did these things. He believed that great men and women could change history. And he did.”