IN MEMORY OF
Richard Holbrooke’s Son: My Dad Would Have Fought to Save Syria’s Refugees
On the fifth anniversary of his father’s death, the son of late diplomat Richard Holbrooke says his father would have advocated for a more humane response to the refugee crisis.
My father, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, died five years ago today. At the time of his death, he was working as President Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). He was tasked with trying to bring an end to the ongoing conflict in this turbulent region and obviously, his work on that front was unsuccessful.
I recently premiered a documentary that I directed about his life and legacy called The Diplomat. The film looks not only at his work as SRAP but also his diplomatic achievements in Vietnam as a young foreign service officer as well as his historic efforts in Bosnia, which ended the searing war in that region.
As I have toured around the world with the film much of this year, audiences in disparate countries such as Israel, Hong Kong, Kosovo and Denmark have all asked the same question. They want to know what he would think about the very fluid and dangerous geopolitical landscape of today.
I always begin my answer by saying that my younger brother, Anthony told me when I started this tour to remember that I am not our father and don’t begin to have his understanding and expertise in foreign policy. Of course, Anthony is right in a way an older brother is often reluctant to admit but I am pretty sure that my father would have been disturbed by the lack of a clear and cogent American policy in Afghanistan. He certainly would have been heartbroken by the attacks on Paris, a city we lived in when he was on the American team unsuccessfully negotiating an end to the Vietnam War there in 1968. As for fixing Syria or eliminating ISIS, I don't really have any idea how he would have addressed those intractable issues but I suspect he would have defined political objectives before advising the use of military force.
What I do know is he would have been speaking out sharply and clearly about the cascade of refugees streaming out of broken states into Europe. The plight of refugees were particularly important to my father because of his own parent’s story. My grandfather fled Russia before World War II started while my grandmother left a comfortable life in Hamburg, Germany in 1932 after her father read Mein Kampf. They met at International House in New York City and built their life together here in the United States. He was a doctor, she was an artist and both their sons served this country, my father as a diplomat and my uncle Andy fought two tours in Vietnam.
When that horrible war was hardly over, my father went to work for the Carter Administration as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs. He was the youngest person in history to hold that senior post and a big part of his portfolio was Vietnam. In 1979, hundreds of thousands of refugees from that part of South East Asia – Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians – left their states, which were being taken over by brutal Communist regimes and descended on our shores here.
The sentiment in the U.S. was very mixed about the “boat people” as they were called. However my father strongly believed that America had to take in these people and went to his boss, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as well as his boss President Jimmy Carter to express that very clear sentiment. I was told by one of his colleagues in the Carter administration that it was my father’s passion and persistence that forged the American policy on this issue that history has shown to be the right one.
Fifteen years after Vietnam, a civil war erupted in Europe, in the oft-troubled region of the Balkans. Two million people from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia became refugees but the war persisted until my father used his tenacious diplomatic skills backed by American force to end the war and start the peace.
Exactly twenty years after that intractable war, an unprecedented crisis has erupted with Syria and then Afghanistan providing the most refugees. It would not be lost on my father that so many of those fleeing from Afghanistan, a country he desperately tried to bring peace to are making their way through Bosnia and Serbia, a region he did help pacify. He would also know that those leaving Afghanistan would be some of the nation’s best and brightest, the future of the country.
So what would he think about all of this and most of all, how would he fix it? I think what he’d say in Afghanistan is that the only way to stem the flow of refugees isn’t a preposterous proposition such as building a wall but rather by doubling down on working with Afghanistan and Pakistan to advance U.S. peace efforts. He would also advocate for a more humane response to the refugee crisis. He would recall that what has made America great, is that at critical junctures in history, it has resisted giving in to fear and isolationism. Instead, we opened our shores to those fleeing persecution and political oppression.
Concerns that refugees from these countries would not adapt to the American way of life have proved unfounded over and over again. Many have become like my grandpa, real achievers and the greatest champions of American values. It is a quintessential feature of American exceptionalism and what has defined America as an extraordinary force for good in the world.