Richard Holbrooke was a problem solver, not a diplomat’s diplomat. He never shied away from publicity or the press, making himself a favorite—and frank—background interview subject among journalists. Tough, hyper-energetic and not constrained by niceties, he took on and wore down most adversaries when given a free hand by the State Department—at least until he met Hamid Karzai.
When Holbrooke died on December 13, Afghanistan was still a work in progress, and perhaps, as diplomats with long experience in the region suggest, an assignment he should never have been given. It is a place that defies outsiders who have not put in years in a perplexing and unforgiving land, however stunning the intellect or analytical powers of the interlocutor may be. On top of that, there was Pakistan.
Holbrooke was restless, kinetic and never reluctant to break diplomatic routines. As ambassador to the United Nations in 1999–2000 (an appointment held up for months by a messy confirmation process), he packed a handful of his Security Council colleagues into a chartered Egyptian plane of uncertain vintage and visited all the African capitals whose governments had a hand in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was one of several innovative steps he took to put the African continent and HIV/AIDS in Africa on the Security Council map.
Sometimes the creativity backfired. In 2000, he invited Senator Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to address the Security Council. Helms, who never had a good word to say about the UN, took the opportunity to blow away the organization on a host of charges and threaten it with American withdrawal if it didn’t listen to Congress. After a few days of silence from the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright finally stepped in to remind the UN, the media (and Holbrooke) that Helms’s embarrassing outburst did not represent US policy.
Holbrooke and Albright had a testy relationship for years. Albright had been the UN ambassador while Holbrooke was assistant secretary of state for Europe. In that job he had cornered Balkans policy and was on the phone day and night to the UN mission, where the Balkans was frequently on the agenda and where Albright herself was an expert on the region. Later, when Albright became secretary of state, in a crisis period for US policy in Iraq at the end of the 1990s, Holbrooke was oddly absent from the center of debate on Iraqi sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s infractions. It was a moment when Holbrooke’s aggressive style (and repeated boast that he would meet with the devil if necessary) could have been put to good use.
When I asked Holbrooke about why he hadn’t taken on this troubled brief that was instead left to foreign diplomats (who mostly pussyfooted around Saddam), he said that he had inherited a dead-end policy and was more interested in the important task of getting Congress to pay American arrears to the UN. It seemed an odd answer. After I wrote about this later, when he was gone from the UN, I received a handwritten note from him saying that he wanted me to know that he basically walked away from Iraq because Albright and Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, were “micromanaging” the policy from Washington.