NEW YORK — 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.
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.
Increasingly, tensions in Kosovo are being blamed on US unwillingness to fully support the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova. Mr. Rugova is known for Ghandi-like nonviolence and for keeping his people from armed revolt against Serb domination. But Rugova is losing clout to a new band of violent nationalists, the Kosovo Liberation Army.
"The creation of the KLA is a direct result of frustration with Dayton," argues James Hooper, a former senior foreign service officer. "Holbrooke is putting a lid on Kosovo because Dayton failed to address it."
Yet Holbrooke argues there's progress on Kosovo. He helped push a 20-minute White House meeting last Friday between President Clinton and the embattled Rugova. But a lack of substance in the White House meeting underscores a major challenge to US foreign policy and the legacy of Dayton, say experts.
They say it gives succor to Milosevic and undercuts Rugova, who is losing prestige and power to the KLA.
Most important, they say, Mr. Clinton did not renew "the Christmas warning" for Rugova - a unilateral statement by the Bush administration to Mr. Milosevic in December 1992. It warned the US would intervene militarily if Serbs began a genocidal campaign in Kosovo.
"Rugova did not get a credible threat of force from the president," Mr. Hooper adds. "Rugova came needing a renewal of the 'Christmas warning.' What he got was a 20 minute photo-op. Milosevic will naturally see that as a green light" -to continue stoking Kosovo's fires of conflict.
But Holbrooke feels that Clinton's willingness to meet with Rugova is in itself a major statement of support. "More to shore Rugova up we cannot do than have him meet with the president," Holbrooke says, adding with some exasperation, "Settling Kosovo at Dayton was not possible. That is not what the game was about. What we did do, and what stands, is an outer wall of sanctions we can use against Milosevic. We can withhold UN membership, Council of Europe membership, and so on."
Memoirs of an envoy
Ironically, Kosovo is arising just as Holbrooke publishes his memoirs on his historic role as US special envoy on Bosnia. The new book, titled "To End a War," has several insights and charges.
Holbrooke, for instance, takes on Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He argues that General Powell's military assessments were false - as were British and French assessments of Serb military strength. Those assessments, Holbrooke says, kept NATO out of Bosnia and allowed civilians to be unnecessarily targeted in the streets of Sarajevo for three years.
As for today, Holbrooke advocates US intervention to stop a bloodbath in Kosovo. "The US cannot stand by if that kind of thing happens," he says. "The lesson of this century is always the same: If you intervene too late, the costs in the long run are always higher. Let me be clear: The US failed to stop the first three wars in the Balkans partly because we got in so late or didn't get in. Our goal is to prevent a new war from breaking out. That seems to me a worthy cause."