Dick Holbrooke’s Liberal Legacy

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, left, in Afghanistan with Marine Major Gen. Richard Mills. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/4722606362/sizes/l/in/photostream/">ISAF/Flickr Commons</a>

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


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 Peacea 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 yearsand before he’d reached 30he 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 presidentshe was rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Secretary of State were she to win in 2008that 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 lifeand 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.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate