12.13.10

Richard Holbrooke's Brilliant Drive

The gifted diplomat dedicated his life to making the world a more just and peaceful place—typical of the dedicated diplomats now vilified by the anarchists at WikiLeaks, writes Harold Evans. This tough prince of peace will be hard to replace.

The death of Richard Holbrooke is a grievous blow to America but it will be mourned not only in America but wherever he worked his diplomatic magic. I believe it also casts a baleful glow on the activities of the self-righteous glorifiers of WikiLeaks and their anarchic vilification of American diplomats.

I write not out of friendship, though I have known Holbrooke for 30 years, but out of admiration for what a gifted diplomat may tirelessly do when irreconcilable enemies are made to reconcile. I was the publisher of two of Holbrooke’s books, including his most recent, his account of the brinksmanship ( To End a War) by which he did just that, ending nearly four years of war and horror in Bosnia. The combined efforts of the United Nations, the European Union and the United States had all come to nothing when President Clinton decided to send Holbrooke and his negotiating team on a last-ditch to mediate between the three sides, the warring remnants of the former Yugoslavia—basically Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. It was a heroic mission, resisted by the hapless bureaucrats at the United Nations, and the timid prevaricators in the European Union, who had failed for three years and Holbrooke’s rivals and critics in Washington who were just so sure that the U.S. should not be involved in the messy business of trying to extract a settlement from the territorial and ethnic complications of a vile war with the bitterness of ethnic cleansing still poisoning the atmosphere. And right at the outset it was marked by tragedy. I remember, as we discussed the nature of the book he might write, how marked by grief Holbrooke still was by the deaths of three of his closest associates on his mission. They were killed in an appalling accident trying to reach Sarajevo via the most dangerous road in Europe, the precipitous Mount Igman route intermittently hit by Serbian snipers and mines: The Serbs could have guaranteed a safe air passage but would not.

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Holbrooke was a big handsome man physically and a big personality who lit up a room. He had nurtured great ambitions ever since seeing the realities of diplomacy as a young man in the early '60s, serving in the American embassy in Saigon and the Mekong Delta. Ambition was matched by intelligence, charm and wit; he was a great persuader: "The most persistent advocate I have ever come across,” was the verdict of President G.H.W Bush. But persuasion would not have got the three furiously nationalistic parties at the Dayton peace conference to agree to the apportionment of their lands on which so much blood had been shed had Holbrooke not mastered every nuance of the conflict, its ethnic and byzantine territorial complexities argued street by street, and the characters of its central political and military players. To that, when the time came, he ratcheted up his capacity for ruthlessness, fuelled in this instance by his moral outrage at the killing that had not entirely ceased as he negotiated over a final 14 tense weeks in Dayton, Ohio, and Belgrade (with input from Europe, Russia and Washington).

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Holbrooke talks about flooding in Pakistan at this year's CGI.

This is what he was doing, assessing and learning and persuading and confronting, in his grueling trips from Washington to Pakistan and Afghanistan and back again, and back again,  and back again. The strain was apparent on his frequent returns to the U.S., though I could never persuade him to vent his frustrations. He was adept at deflecting a direct question with an anecdote or a bromide presented as a confidence. The physical stresses he endured on regular flights simply compounded the mental ordeals of finding a way through a maze of violence, corruption and treachery.

He was a shrewd observer of character and no doubt his cables are vivid and pointed—as their premature release would undoubtedly have made his job quite impossible and that much more hazardous.

And so I cannot help but think of how diplomats like Holbrooke are caricatured by WikiLeaks, how American foreign policy is portrayed as inevitably evil, how the chorus of anarchists exult, when in truth only American leadership, backed uniquely by American power when necessary, has any chance of making the world a more just and peaceful place—the cause to which Holbrooke gave his life.

When I first met him, to talk about Vietnam for a book I was writing, he was tormented by the blunders and the heroism he had seen as a young Foreign Service officer. His words written in 1998 (from To End a War) are especially worth recalling when diplomats like him are being traduced for doing their job:

"Today, public service has lost much of the aura that it had when John F. Kennedy asked us what we could do for our country. To hear that phrase before it became a cliché was electrifying, and it lead many in my generation to enter public service. For me, it was the Foreign Service, which I joined right after graduating from college. Less than a year later, I found myself in Saigon. It seems like yesterday, but this was almost 36 years ago. I do not wish to suggest that in some distant 'golden age' all was altruism, and that today idealism is dead. Such easy myths may satisfy but they’re not true; every era has both heroes and scandals. But in an age in which the media pays more attention to personalities than to issues, Americans may conclude that public service is either just another job, or a game played for personal advancement.”

Such views are sadly deficient. The public sector contains countless men and women who, whether liberal or conservative, still believe in hard work, high ethical standards and patriotism. As this story demonstrates, public service can make a difference. If this book helps stimulate a few young Americans to enter the government or other forms of public service, it will have achieved one of its goals.

Harold Evans was president of Random House Trade Group from 1990-97 and author of The American Century