“You’ve Got To Stop This War In Afghanistan.” Richard Holbrooke: 1941-2010

Rajiv Chandrasekaran at WaPo:

Longtime U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, whose relentless prodding and deft maneuvering yielded the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia – a success he hoped to repeat as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – died Monday in Washington of complications from surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69.

A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals worldwide. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan.

Obama praised him as “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the United States “has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants.”

Michael Crowley at Swampland at Time:

Holbrooke’s Last Words

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Spoken to a Pakistani surgeon who was sedating him before surgery.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

Holbrooke’s untimely death comes as a particular shock to those of us at FP, who saw him only two weeks ago when he was honored at our Global Thinkers Gala and was at his pugnacious best. (Here’s a video of his speech at the event, in which he called his years at FP “among the most important in my life and my career.”

Holbrooke was a giant of American policy over the last half century, trouble-shooting in conflicts from Vietnam, to the Balkans, (about which he wrote his classic first-person account, To End a War) to Afghanistan. (He’s probably one of the few State Department figures to play a starring role in both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks documents.)

But while often seen as the consummate Foggy Bottom insider, Holbrooke was never sentimental about the business of American foreign policy. His first piece from the very first issue of Foreign Policy in 1970 takes on the bloated U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy, or has he called it, “the machine that fails.” In Holbrooke’s view, the proliferation of massively-staffed agencies accountable for different aspects of U.S. foreign policy had made the entirely apparatus dangerously unwieldy.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Diplomacy is a paradoxically insular world. And most of the nation’s foreign affairs get little treatment in the headlines. So I imagine that more than a few readers are wondering why we’re giving such major treatment to the death of Obama administration who many of you probably have never heard of or perhaps only in passing.

As the obituaries note, Holbrooke was key figure in US diplomacy for almost half a century. One fun fact: he authored a substantial portion of the Pentagon Papers. What may or may not come through as clearly was the size of the personality and the doggedness — a fact that likely kept him from the top job of Secretary of State in this and last Democratic administration.

Vice President Biden’s statement contains these two sentence: “Richard Holbrooke was a larger than life figure, who through his brilliance, determination and sheer force of will helped bend the curve of history in the direction of progress … He was a tireless negotiator, a relentless advocate for American interests, and the most talented diplomat we’ve had in a generation.”

His reputation rests on his role in ending the war in Yugoslavia, where he demonstrated a cold-eyed, unabashedly pragmatic mix of cajoling, bullying, threatening and negotiating mixed with bombing to achieve an eminently just and moral end, which makes him on several levels a hero to many of us.

Spencer Ackerman (entire post):

Out for a long-overdue drinks and dinner with foreign-policy-oriented friends tonight, all of a sudden our phones buzz. Richard Holbrooke, the most distinguished diplomat of his generation, has died. None of us know quite what to say. Our respect for Holbrooke has long been tempered with a certain exasperation with how his personality has overshadowed his talents and gotten in the way of his ambition.

And all of a sudden it dawned on me how trivial and thin that critique is. What other American diplomat can credibly say s/he ended a savage war? I read To End A War the year I came to Washington and decided I wanted to cover foreign policy — immediately, if I recall correctly, after I finished A Problem From Hell, partly because I didn’t want to stop exploring what that book mined — and still remember how superhuman a task Dayton seemed, even after factoring out Holbrooke’s interest in making it seem so arduous.

For 40 years, no other diplomat has played as impactful a role in as many of the nation’s crucibles. It’s him and Kissinger (and Kissinger’s been out of the arena for a long time). And whatever Holbrooke’s flaws were, his influence during these tests was ultimately wise and beneficial, quite unlike Kissinger’s. Think for a moment about how thin the line is in foreign affairs between principle and hubris; between the lessons of experience and the blinders they impose; between subtlety and miscalculation. Someone who manages to manage, as Holbrooke always did, is a precious resource.

We read our messages, and clinked our glasses in honor of a great man, thought briefly of his family, and drank. RIP.

Steve Clemons:

Richard Holbrooke is gone. This is not the time for cliches.

But I can’t imagine results-achieving American diplomacy without him. I will personally miss him so much — and am deeply saddened by his passing.

Condolences to Kati Marton, his amazing wife; and to all of his current team — and his many former staff who will carry on his ideas and work for years.

Steve Coll at New Yorker:

It was not easy to construct a quiet hour or two with Richard Holbrooke. I saw him regularly, as did other journalists and researchers who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a long sit-down took some effort. Holbrooke was an accessible, open, and attentive person, but he was also in perpetual motion. He moved from meeting to meeting, conversation to conversation, and if you managed to sequester him somewhere for fifteen minutes or more, his cell phone was sure to ring—Islamabad, Kabul, the Secretary of State, somebody.

Earlier this year, however, we managed to arrange a private lunch in Washington on a Saturday. He invited me to meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel, near his home in Georgetown. The dining room at the hotel is not quite the watering hole for the wealthy and famous that it is in Manhattan, but it is a Washington-limited facsimile. When the Ambassador arrived the maître d’ attended him lavishly, scolding the waiter who had initially greeted him for failing to assign him an appropriately expansive and exclusive table.

He was carrying that morning’s Financial Times. He marvelled over an article he was reading about I. M. Pei and he wanted to talk about architecture for a while. As I had gotten to know him a little, I had discovered that he would speak about subjects such as acting or trends in academic history with genuine passion. He sometimes preferred those topics to the repetitive nuances of South Asia’s dysfunctional politics. He had a reputation for creating drama around himself; he was genuinely a theatrical man, in the sense of being physical and full of emotion and gesture. I came to think that he lived the way he did in part to avoid boredom.

While we ate lunch, Jerry Seinfeld and some of his entourage entered the dining room; Seinfeld was a guest at the hotel. “Jerry!” Holbrooke shouted, warmly. They were neighbors, it turned out, in New York and Telluride. We stood for introductions and chit-chat. Holbrooke asked what Seinfeld was working on and the comedian talked about his new reality-television show. In mid-explanation, however, Holbrooke’s cell phone rang. It was Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so the Ambassador had to interrupt Seinfeld to take the call. Eventually we returned to our table and resumed our discussion about the Waziristans and the rest.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

I’m finding it mind-boggling (as is Jim Fallows) that Richard Holbrooke has died, because he was not the sort of person who dies, or at least dies before he’s finished with what he needed to finish. There was too much will inside him to achieve, and he had not yet achieved what he needed to achieve. The last time I spoke to him, a couple of months ago, I asked him if he would replace George Mitchell as the Middle East envoy when Mitchell inevitably stepped down. It always struck me that Holbrooke, with his titanic ego, his magnetism and his brute intelligence — and also his conniving, man-of-the-bazaar qualities so unusual in an American — would be the only American who could birth a Palestinian state and bring peace to the Middle East (Could you just imagine Bill Clinton as good cop and Holbrooke as bad? I could).  Holbrooke laughed off the question, but not really. There were challenges he needed to master before he mastered that one. He was not having great luck in Afghanistan, and he might very well have ultimately failed, but you have to ask yourself — who else? Who else could do what he did? Who else is there? Richard Holbrooke will be missed, even — especially — by the people he drove mad.

James Fallows:

I am thinking of a dozen stories now, starting in the early 1970s when he was editor of Foreign Policy magazine and I was a fledgling freelance writer for him. (Or when, a few years later, I had the odd experience of welcoming him to Plains, Georgia as part of the Carter campaign team.) I will store them up for another time. He was a tremendous force, overall for the betterment of American interests and the world’s. My sympathies to his wife Kati and the rest of his family.  It’s routine to say this, but in this case it’s really so: his absence will be felt.

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