Richard Holbrooke: sudden void at a focal point of US foreign policy

Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy who took on America's toughest diplomatic challenges, was remembered as a 'champion in the cause of peace.'

Fradioon Pooya/AP/file
US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke visited the old city of Herat, Afghanistan, on Aug. 23, 2009. The death of Holbrooke leaves the US without a tough hand whose stature, tenacity, and extensive contacts allowed him to weave together once-separate diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama concludes his review of the Afghanistan war this week without his special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. Richard Holbrooke, a brusque and outsize figure of US diplomacy best known for negotiating the accords that brought the 1990s Balkans war to a close, died Monday evening in a Washington hospital.

The White House issued a long list of the military, diplomatic, and development officials to meet with Obama in the White House situation room on Tuesday. The absence of Mr. Holbrooke’s name suggests the president will have some bigger-than-life shoes to fill for the critical six months before a phased and “conditions-based” drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan is to begin in July.

As the president’s point man on the crucial civilian effort in what is now America’s longest war, Holbrooke butted heads with the likes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders who chafed at the hard-knuckled diplomat’s demands for cleaner government, greater transparency, and service with the general population in mind.

President Obama called Holbrooke “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected.” Obama is to conclude his Afghanistan review with the Pentagon’s report on conditions on the ground later in the week.

Holbrooke made clear through his many congressional testimonies and generous briefings with reporters that peace – violence- and threat-free living conditions and at least an opportunity for average citizens to seek a prosperous life – was the constant goal of his work.

Need for tough diplomacy

But to get there he saw need for a tough diplomacy that didn’t always sit well with the equally bigger-than-life personalities he often dealt with.

Indeed, Holbrooke’s relations with President Karzai were so strained over the deeply questioned presidential election in August 2009 that Obama was left to dispatch Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts to smooth over relations and convince Karzai to submit to a runoff in his reelection bid.

Still, Holbrooke’s intent was never doubted, even by those he most fiercely confronted. Both Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, after hearing of his hospitalization Friday, telephoned Holbrooke at the hospital on Sunday and spoke with his wife.

Perhaps the keenest appreciation of Holbrooke’s skill and perseverance came Tuesday from Europe, where leaders still hold fresh in their memory the role of an American diplomat who was critical to ending a war they could not stop.

“Richard Holbrooke was a giant among the diplomats of our time. He was truly one of the best and the brightest and the fiercest fighters for the causes he believed in or interests of his country,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who together with Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995. The agreement ended the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

'A critical friend of Europe'

Calling Holbrooke a close personal friend, Mr. Bildt said Holbrooke “was a critical friend of Europe,” adding that “the world is a smaller place without him.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron praised Holbrooke as a “formidable force of American diplomacy – an indefatigable champion in the cause of peace,” while NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen paid tribute to “his diplomatic skills, strategic vision and legendary determination.”

No doubt referring to Holbrooke’s diplomatic experience that stretched from the Vietnam war to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Rasmussen said he was a diplomat who “knew that history is unpredictable [and] that we sometimes have to defend our security by facing conflicts in distant places.”

That last tribute may have captured more of Holbrooke’s essence than the NATO secretary general knew. The diplomat with five decades of experience was closely linked with a number of US military conflicts. But he seemed to become increasingly adamant that diplomatic and civilian “soft power” efforts ultimately end conflicts. Holbrooke’s final words to his surgeon Sunday, according to family members quoted in the Washington Post, were that “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Neither Holbrooke nor his bullheaded style was universally admired. Despite evidence of his frustration in recent months with the White House’s move away from a front-loaded withdrawal to a back-end-heavy drawdown of military forces from Afghanistan – with a new goal of the end of 2014 for the withdrawal of all combat troops – some critics still saw Holbrooke as overly fixed on military solutions to conflict.

“Unreconstructed hawk” is how Stephen Zunes, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco and a frequent critic of what he calls Obama’s “unenlightened” foreign policy, has described Holbrooke.

Holbrooke, whose unfulfilled dream was to become secretary of State, was known to have become increasingly pessimistic about prospects for the “Af-Pak” portfolio he held. He told journalist Bob Woodward he saw a 1-in-10 chance of a good outcome in Afghanistan.

It was apparently the determined diplomat in him that kept him dedicated to the cause.

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