I never met Richard Holbrooke, but I sure knew him. I was introduced in college, when I picked up David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace—a not-terribly memorable piece of solid reporting that explained the Clinton administration’s approach to conflict. Holbrooke emerged from the dense narrative as a sort of demigod, a smooth-talking, brilliant if self-promoting diplomat who brokered the Dayton Peace Accord that began the end of killing in the Balkans.
He wasn’t unknown to Halberstam. Holbrooke joined the State Department’s foreign service after college in the early ’60s, and right out of the gates, he got a thankless job: fixing pacification in Vietnam. Within a few years—and before he’d reached 30—he was advising the US delegation at the Paris Peace Talks, as well as drafting his own candid analyses of the Vietnam War…analyses that would later be known as part of the Pentagon Papers.
It was only natural after Holbrooke’s service to successive Democratic presidents—he was rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Secretary of State were she to win in 2008—that Barack Obama would tap him as a special envoy to Afghanistan, tasking him with yet another impossible mission in yet another out-of-control war. (MoJo readers may remember Holbrooke as one of renegade General Stanley McChrystal’s targets in his infamous Rolling Stone ramblings.)
Holbrooke continued to serve the president in Afghanistan until today, when he succumbed to complications from heart surgery in Washington.
And Lord, some heart. To call Holbrooke a foreign-policy wunderkind is to give other wunderkinds too much credit for intelligence, enthusiasm, and ebullience. He was larger than life—and certainly too large for cliches like that one. Holbrooke had his career and his ambitions, yes, but he also had his ideas. His vision was one of measured liberal governance, and while it often put him at loggerheads with progressives and conservatives alike, it’s the sort of reasoned diplomacy that’s so rare in hard-nosed careerist civil servants. Regardless of your opinions on the man and his politics, he also represents an independent spirit that too often is lacking in the highest echelons of diplomacy and military policy. His is the spirit engendered in so many lively, almost lyrical WikiLeaks cables from young, opinionated diplomats. And it’s a spirit that hopefully will live on in US foreign policy long after him.
Say a kaddish for Dick Holbrooke.