Larger than life? A peacemaker with an abrasive personality? A man of letters? A wise man? How should we remember Richard Holbrooke, who passed away on Sunday, 13 December 2010? Even the Taliban issued a statement which Alissa J. Rubin notes, borders on true regard.
I had initially planned a briefing with him when he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. with my students at the urging of my wife–and having been wishing I pushed harder to make it happen in the style of this already legendary U.S. diplomat. Since his passing I have been thinking about what made him so substantial, interesting, and important. I like the emphasis Eliza Griswold in Slate puts on him: someone who knew that ‘relationships are the building block of diplomacy”–and wish I could have known him, too.
A lot of different pieces of the mosaic are readily available. The book blog Paper Cuts hones in on Holbrook as author and intellectual:
Richard Holbrooke was, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of those rare public intellectuals who managed to combine a life in world affairs with the life of the mind. In his role as a diplomat, he seemed to maintain ironic distance on himself, watching as he conducted negotiations at the highest level and reflecting on his own activities and decisions.
via Barry Gewen, Paper Cuts, NYT.com
At FP.com, David Rothkopf seconds this motion, calling him a “wise man,” not only for his briliant organiational strategy in creating a team that worked across and largely through bureaucratic silos, but also for his thoughtful engagement:
In fact, perhaps that term “wise man” is one that we should not pass over too quickly. Holbrooke was a direct descendent of that line of U.S. foreign policy thinkers who earned that title, one made famous by Walter Issacson and Evan Thomas in their great book on the seminal foreign policy thinkers of the post World War II era.
via On the death of a wise man – the passing of Richard Holbrooke | David Rothkopf.
He was never sentimental about U.S. foreign policy, a ‘machine that doesn’t work’–and even had strong words for how the State Department must needs be reorganized to be the essential player that he believe it should be.
From a personal standpoint, Nick Kristof hits on Holbrooke’s abrasiveness, a force that was useful for good ends:
It’s well-known that he could be abrasive, and he rubbed some people the wrong way. But what’s sometimes missed is that abrasiveness was usually serving some cause; it wasn’t just him trying to get his way. Quite regularly when I would write about AIDS, I would get a reproachful call from Richard. “So, why didn’t you mention testing?” he would ask. As chairman of the Global Business Coalition against AIDS, he was among the first to appreciate the importance of widespread testing for HIV, on the theory that you couldn’t constrain the epidemic until you knew who had it. And so once he understood that, he pushed and persuaded and bullied to get more testing. For my part, persuaded and bullied by Richard, I began to mention testing more often – and my readers and the public were better off for it.
via Richard Holbrooke, RIP – NYTimes.com.
These skills were useful in his diplomatic profession:
A brilliant, sometimes abrasive infighter, he used a formidable arsenal of facts, bluffs, whispers, implied threats and, when necessary, pyrotechnic fits of anger to press his positions. Mr. Obama, who praised Mr. Holbrooke on Monday afternoon at the State Department as “simply one of the giants of American foreign policy,” was sometimes driven to distraction by his lectures.
But Mr. Holbrooke dazzled and often intimidated opponents and colleagues around a negotiating table. Some called him a bully, and he looked the part: the big chin thrust out, the broad shoulders, the tight smile that might mean anything. To admirers, however, including generations of State Department protégés and the presidents he served, his peacemaking efforts were extraordinary.
via Strong American Voice in Diplomacy and Crisis, NYT.com
There’s more, and you should spend the time–the Packer New Yorker piece, a list of Holbrooke’s Foreign Policy articles–at the Atlantic Wire--as well as the WaPo update on his final words to “end the war” which appear to be more of humorous banter than famous last words. But even so, if the U.S. was to have found a diplomatic way out of Afghanistan, it was well served having this diplomat extraordinaire on its side.