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Fix-It Guy For World's Tough Spot

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1998


RichardHolbrooke is on a roll. He's late for lunch. He can't find his limo. But the golden boy of US diplomacy blows through the palatial Credit Suisse lobby and onto Madison Avenue like he blew through Europe last monthon a mission to troubleshoot the Yugoslav crisis in Kosovo, a place now verging on full-scale bloodshed.

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Mr. Holbrooke, who seems to move with an entourage even when alone, is talking about his trademark knock-heads diplomacy - in this case, trying to get Kosovo's Serb and Albanian leaders to meet after a dozen European envoys have failed to. "Keep moving," he says, pausing only to dress down a cowering limo driver. "Improvisational diplomacy is a cross between mountain-climbing and chess."

Holbrooke on Bosnia is legendary. In 1993, this brilliant, volatile ambassador was nearly alone in pushing to bomb Serb forces to rid Europe of evil doings. Those views hurt him politically. He was on his way out.

But in 1995 he became the white knight. His views became US policy. NATO bombed. The 1,200-day seige of Sarajevo stopped. In Dayton, Ohio, he crafted the deal that brought peace to the region. History was redeemed. Or so it seemed.

But now Holbrooke's legacy - and America's role in the Balkans - is at risk. A crisis in the crucible of Kosovo, thought to be created by Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is becoming Holbrooke's nightmare.

New questions are being asked: Did Holbrooke too eagerly appease Mr. Milosevic in order to get a Dayton deal? Did he - by not dealing with the serpent's egg of Kosovo at Dayton - leave the fangs on the most venomous problem in the Balkans?

These questions bear on hard issues such as the lives of US troops, the credibility of the US and NATO, and America's role in the world.

They also bear heavily on the legacy of Holbrooke - a man who started his career at the side of diplomatic big shots such as former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In 1968, Holbrooke accompanied Vance to Paris to try to craft a peaceful end to the Vietnam war. Then, in the Carter administration, he became the youngest No. 2 in the State Department in this century.

His combative style is famously effective, though it also leaves some famous lumps. A colleague from the 1970s said she learned more in three years with him - after she got over her bruises - than in 30 years as a career official.

Holbrooke has long desired to be secretary of State. But he would take the UN ambassadorship when current US chief Bill Richardson leaves later this year. For now, he's playing the role of the mere investment banker who agrees, reluctantly, to save the day as US envoy when all others have failed. That's how he's gotten involved in Kosovo.

Back to basics: Kosovo

In the Balkans, it all goes back to Kosovo. This region is the cradle of Serb civilization and honor. To Serbs, it is Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and the Alamo rolled into in one. The 90 percent Albanian population there has been systematically repressed for a decade by a 10 percent Serb population led by Milosevic -a man who is regarded as one of the canniest and most ruthless politicians in Europe, and who the CIA charges with creating the war in Bosnia.