Published December 14, 2010
Richard Holbrooke, who has just died at the age of 69, never became the diplomatic titan he always dreamed of being: But he was a real man for all that.
There was always something ridiculously pretentious but also refreshingly boyish about Holbrooke: The son of German-Jewish refugees, he came of age in the 1960s as a Foreign Service Officer specializing in Vietnam.
That already told you something important about the man. He wasn’t an arrogant, little sedentary Washington think tank parasite or pundit, setting the world to rights from the secure safety of a warm safe office.
Holbrooke had seen hundreds of thousands of real people suffer in real war situations, and he always burned with the desire to do something to try and stop it.
There was also something of an old transcontinental steam locomotive to Dick Holbrooke: He looked impressive and ridiculous, unstoppable and archaic at the same time.
He burned with ambition like most of the infernal classes in Washington, but unlike most all of them, he wasn’t afraid to show it.
One jealous rival once observed to me about him: “Richard wants to become the second Kissinger and that’s his big mistake -- Because there are too many people in this town who still remember the first one.”
This was true. Holbrooke modeled his persona and public image, unconsciously or not, on Henry Kissinger. He was larger than life, brilliant, witty and abusive. He did not suffer fools lightly and thought pretty much everyone who wasn’t worth sucking up to was a fool.
This approach to life served him well – up to a point, but not beyond. Bill and Hillary Clinton in particular took him at his own estimation and carried him far. But the fates always prevented him getting the job -- secretary of state – and the global stage he always yearned for.
Quiet, shrewd, passive-aggressive Warren Christopher snatched the prize from him in 1993 and Madeleine Albright, the first of the apparently endless sacrifices to feminism on the altar of U.S. global diplomacy, nudged him out, with Christopher’s envious support, in 1997. He got ambassador to the United Nations as his consolation prize. But it was no consolation.
He almost certainly would have been Hillary Clinton’s pick for secretary of state had she won the presidency two years ago. As it was, she was loyal to her loyal vassal, though that proved a mixed blessing for him.
Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel -- who have been far more energetic and focused on undercutting Secretary Clinton than they ever were about rescuing the U.S. economy -- never forgot he was Hillary’s man.
The Pakistanis and the Indians soon got that message too. His two years of intense lobbying on Afghanistan-Pakistan and India got him exactly nowhere. The self-proclaimed legend of Kissinger II was wearing thin long before he died.
In truth, he was never in Henry the K’s class, or in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s, Gen. Brent Scowcroft’s or James A Baker’s either for that matter. He never had Kissinger, Scowcroft or Brzezinski’s genius for new strategic conceptions or Kissinger and Baker’s flair for deal-making.
Holbrooke’s one great achievement and it was by no means small – was to end the Yugoslav civil wars of 1992-95. He ended Europe’s worst bloodbath since World War II 50 years before.
In fact, even that achievement was flawed. The price Holbrooke and the Clinton administration paid was a heavy one. First the creation of states then in Bosnia and in1998 in Kosovo that allowed unregulated madrassas to preach and teach extreme Islamism on the continent of Europe.
Second, and even more dangerous, Holbrooke on both occasions alienated Serbia, Russia and the Orthodox Christian, formerly communist Eastern half of Europe from the former Protestant and Catholic, but now increasingly just plain secular West of the continent.
Far from being a diplomatic genius, Holbrooke relied on bullying and browbeating as his one basic diplomatic tool. -- That can be useful, but there is a lot more to the art of statesmanship than that, and he never realized it.
Still, he had a good heart and he really did care about the real suffering of real people, which is more than can be said of the many sneering mediocrities who envied him so much. And he really did stop the killing of innocents in Bosnia. His place in history – and in heaven, will be secure for that.
Martin Sieff is former Managing Editor, International Affairs of United Press International. He is the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.”