Richard Holbrooke, who died Dec. 13, 2010, at age 69, left an incredible career behind, and most of his friends thought he was not done yet.
The roll call of prestigious positions he held is testament to his extraordinary talent for foreign policy. He joined the Foreign Service after failing to be hired by the New York Times, and became a civilian representative of the Agency for International Development working in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. He then became staff assistant in Saigon’s U.S. Embassy before joining President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Security Council at the tender age of 24. He then took on positions as special assistant to the State Department’s number two, was on the delegation to the 1968 Paris Peace Talks, and authored a volume of the Pentagon Papers. He was director of the Peace Corps in Morocco before becoming an editor on the then-nascent journal Foreign Policy.
He prepped presidential candidate Jimmy Carter for his foreign policy debates, became assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met Indonesian President Suharto to press for better human rights in Indonesia, advised President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and was appointed ambassador to Germany.
But the achievement for which he is best remembered was the Dayton Accords, which ended the horrifying events in the Balkans in the early 1990s and bore his almost singlehanded imprint. Agreed to and signed in winter 1995, the pact ended a war that had been going on for 3 ½ years and that European countries had failed to stop. Holbrooke stepped in, convinced Clinton that action was needed, put in the work and got the deal. Later, as special presidential envoy to the region, he gave Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic the ultimatum before NATO bombs fell on Serbia.
Holbrooke went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a task with a perhaps eerie resemblance to the Vietnam War where his career began.
But Holbrooke was a thinker as well as a doer. Even before the 2008 election, he wrote a lengthy foreign policy roundup in Foreign Affairs that covered all the bases and advised the next president in clear, muscular prose.
Many wondered how such a successful diplomat could be so undiplomatic. Those who crossed him knew that he could be fiery and tough. But those who knew him found that he was an incredible person to have on your side. “He really looked after you,” and “He really helped you to develop your skills and yourself as a diplomat” are two sentiments that are widely expressed by those who worked under him.
His death is a blow to the Obama administration. An envoy’s job requires painstaking and diligent work to build up and cultivate relationships with a region’s power players. It is a task that takes time and finesse. Even if he sometimes offended, Richard Holbrooke did that work, and it will take time for anyone who steps into his shoes to take full control of the diplomatic reins. It is hoped that his successor understands the challenges of diplomacy as well as he did.
There was talk of the possibility of his becoming the next secretary of state. We will never know how things might have been different had that happened; it will remain an unwritten history of an alternative Obama presidency. But in his three decades in the diplomatic saddle and at the center of the U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic milieu, he already made an incredible impact.
Will his death change the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan? No. It was very much the president’s policy in the first place. Holbrooke himself would have done things rather differently, as his skeptical dispatch about Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the run-up to the policy review proved.
Will it change the execution of the policy? Yes, and most likely in two ways. Firstly, his replacement is likely to get on better with the Afghan leader, whom Holbrooke mistrusted and called erratic, and who even refused to meet the diplomat on occasion. Secondly, the job is unlikely to be taken on by anyone with more experience or street smarts than Holbrooke. His address book was full of every major player in the Afghanistan- Pakistan region and decades’ worth of diplomacy had given him the benefit of numerous words of advice from various world leaders and diplomats. He had on-the-ground experience, and, a rarer quality still, he could and did draw on an encyclopedic knowledge of history and cite historical parallels and precedents for many of the thorniest problems he encountered throughout his career.
His death does not endanger the administration’s policy, but the difficulty of finding someone who can pursue it with the same energy, drive and intelligence is an eloquent testament to his abilities.
Azeem Ibrahim is a director and policy board member at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the Yale World Fellows Program.