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12.13.10

A Dominant Diplomatic Force

Richard Holbrooke pushed harder and cared more than other American foreign-policy players. Peter Beinart on Holbrooke's special blend of superpower swagger and moral passion.

There will probably never be another American diplomat like Richard Holbrooke. The reason is partly personal. Most diplomats are careful, reserved, discreet… diplomatic. Holbrooke was the opposite. He didn't merely court reporters; he stalked them. And when they didn't write enough about him, he wrote about himself. He did not do subtle. When he bore down on people, he had about as much respect for personal space as Lyndon Johnson in a men's room. As Democratic doyenne Pamela Harriman once put it, "he's not entirely housebroken."

In all these ways, Holbrooke was part of the sociology of 20th-century American Jewry. He entered the Foreign Service in the 1960s, when it was still something of a WASP club. And like the mid-century American Jews who bulldozed their way into other formerly "genteel" professions like finance and law, he aroused resentment from people who preferred polite mediocrity to in-your-face meritocracy.

But the biggest reason there will probably never be another Holbrooke is that he was a creature of American dominance. Unlike many of the Democrats touched by Vietnam, he never shed the sensibility of New Frontier liberalism; in particular, its comfort with raw American power. In the Carter administration, when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was insisting that the third world would no longer bend to America's will, Holbrooke sided with National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who believed the third world would bend to whoever made it bend, and mocked Vance as "the last Vietnam casualty." (It is no coincidence that Holbrooke's ideological allies—like Brzezinski and later Madeleine Albright—were often East European émigrés who yearned for muscular Americanism because they had seen muscular communism up close).

At first, Holbrooke was an outlier in the Clinton administration as well. He was initially blocked from a top foreign-policy job not only because he was considered too pushy, but because he was pushing for U.S. military action in Bosnia, which Clinton's key advisers considered a European problem. Under Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Clinton's early Bosnia policy was marked by extreme courtesy, elaborate multilateralism, and abject failure, since the Europeans were more interested in protecting their peacekeepers than protecting Bosnia. It was only in 1995, when the U.S. essentially cast its allies aside and began arming the Croats and Bosnians and bombing the Serbs that Clinton's foreign policy and Holbrooke's personality clicked into alignment. After the bombing forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, some in the State Department argued that it would be good form to hold the talks in Europe. But Holbrooke insisted on Dayton, Ohio, where he secluded Serb President Slobodan Milosevic and his Balkan counterparts at an air base and bludgeoned them into submission. Asked by French President Jacques Chirac how Holbrooke brought the ferocious Serb leader to heel, Clinton answered "Because he has the same character as Milosevic."

Holbrooke didn't only push harder than his colleagues; he also cared more.

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That, however, was not the only reason. Holbrooke didn't only push harder than his colleagues; he also cared more. He had actually been to Bosnia as a private citizen, and stayed in a Sarajevo Holiday Inn whose rooms were stained with blood. It was at Dayton, in many ways, that the species known as liberal hawk was born. It was born because Holbrooke combined superpower swagger with moral passion. After Bosnia, Holbrooke steamrolled the cautious Europeans again and masterminded NATO's expansion into Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Once again, French and German diplomats cried unilateralism; once again, democracy and American power marched hand in hand.

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Had Al Gore become president, Holbrooke would likely have become secretary of State at the height of the unipolar moment. It would have been awesome, and a little frightening, to behold. Instead, he had to wait until 2009 to return to Foggy Bottom, by which time George W. Bush had squandered much of the post-Cold War might he had helped amass. If Holbrooke was never able to dominate Afghan policy the way he dominated Bosnia policy, it is partially because in Afghanistan the whole idea of U.S. dominance is being laid to rest. In the Hindu Kush, and beyond, U.S. foreign policy is once again about managing scarce and declining resources, about lowering expectations, about being shrewd and graceful in retreat. It is not Richard Holbrooke's bag.

It's probably just as well that there will be no more Richard Holbrookes, at least not for the foreseeable future. American foreign policy is no longer a big enough stage. But for those of us who came of age during the Holbrooke era, when American omnipotence seemed the handmaiden of American decency, it will always be the golden age.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.