Richard Holbrooke: The pragmatist

Richard Holbrooke was more than America’s premier diplomat — he was a “force” in world affairs. His values, energy and commitment helped shape the post Cold War world as much as any individual of the age. 

Over Labor Day weekend of 1994, while  hosting the vice president as U.S. ambassador in Germany, he fought one of his battles — this one for NATO enlargement. The Pentagon said, “No, too much risk of offending Russia, too many uncertainties,” while Holbrooke said, “Yes, extend NATO’s zone of security eastward.” As the vice president’s speech drafts flew back and forth between the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House, I kept rewriting the offending passages and Holbrooke kept reinserting them. The outcome was inevitable: Holbrooke won. NATO would expand to encompass all of Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans. 

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He returned to Washington as assistant secretary of State for European affairs, his second such position. He helped engineer the enlargement, and I was privileged to help him. And he sought an active diplomacy aimed at halting the war in Bosnia. Then, after a quick honeymoon with his beloved Kati, he returned to duty to lead the Bosnia negotiations from the front. Two months of tireless shuttle diplomacy, a three-week peace conference at Wright Patterson AFB and the Dayton Agreement emerged. His agreement became perhaps the Clinton administration’s greatest foreign-policy success. It wouldn’t have happened without President Clinton’s leadership and stubborn determination to get it done, but, also, it wouldn’t have happened without Holbrooke’s incredible energy, insight and skill at the cutting edge of war and peace. 

As ambassador to the United Nations, he worked with a Republican Congress to win greater American resourcing for the United Nations and international institutions. He was a Democrat, but there was no spirit of partisanship in him. He was an American patriot through and through. 

He was always controversial — because he was no diplomat: He was a doer as well as a thinker. He pushed, intruded, bullied where necessary, flattered, threatened, blustered, bypassed and, again and again, had his way. And his way was the vision of America that we hold dear today. 

Holbrooke believed in America’s unique place in the world. We had the power, and he wasn’t afraid to threaten with it, whether dealing with some European bureaucrat or a misguided head of state. But more than that, America’s power was rightful power, in pursuit of values — human rights, democracy, freedom, self-determination and peace. And against ethnic cleansing, oppression, torture, abuse and war. This was the post Cold War America we became, and Holbrooke helped us get there. 

He was grounded in the awful tragedy of Vietnam and the difficulties of the Paris Peace Talks, schooled in the nuances of bringing a Communist China peacefully into the world community, tempered by the human rights abuses in Asia, Africa and Europe. He believed in first-hand experience, sometimes as a private citizen, sometimes in government service. He got his clothes dirty, took risks and learned his lessons the hard way. 

Holbrooke was action, motivated by vision and values. I recall the Sunday morning in September 1995 when we marched into the Croatian presidency and the ministry and told the Croats to halt their offensive. They had done enough. He believed no military solution was final — that the only lasting solution was obtained by stopping the killing as rapidly as possible and then letting the diplomats argue it out. As he said: That’s their job and they enjoy it. 

Now, the talk will turn to Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are doing “counter-insurgency” while we are caught in the grip of a proxy war between India and Pakistan and, simultaneously, we collect intelligence and go after the terrorist networks in Pakistan itself. A very tough situation, and, naturally, Richard Holbrooke would be right in the thick of it. A periodic assessment is due. Already his last phrase as he went onto the operating table — “...Get us out of this war” — is being bandied about. Much will be made of what he said and what he might have prescribed. And all of this will unfold in the coming days. 

But the truth is that Richard was no ideologue; he was a total pragmatist — clever, untiring in pursuit of his goals and imminently practical in his recommendations. America will find its way forward, no doubt. But that effort will be greatly more difficult without Richard Holbrooke working the issues of war and diplomacy in a far-flung battlefield. Richard, we miss you.

Gen. Wesley Clark (ret) served as NATO’s supreme allied commander, Europe. He is a senior fellow at the UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.