The New York Times titled its headline on the subject as the death of a 'giant' of American diplomacy. The New York Observer called him the Bulldozer of Manhattan. Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was 69. He had been in the employ of every Democratic president since the late 1960s.
The one conflict that will always have his unmistakable stamp on it (and there are many) will be the Yugoslavian civil war. In 1995, he became the chief architect of the Dayton peace accords which concluded the war in Bosnia. The formula he hammered out, awkward in its own way, but ultimately accepted, was a division of the state into two distinct entities, one of Bosnian Serbs, the other of Croatians and Muslims.
It was in Vietnam, first with the United States Agency for International Development dealing with the Mekong Delta, where he first sharpened his skills in attempting to win over the local populace with specifically targeted projects. Then came a stint as an aide in Saigon to Ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., then a presence in the American delegation to the 1968-69 Paris peace talks. His intimacy with the conflict enabled him to author one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers, which were subsequently released to the press in 1971 by New York Times.
His rise in State Department circles continued at steady pace, becoming assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Carter administration, President Clinton's ambassador to Germany in 1993-4, and assistant secretary of state for European affairs in 1994-5. As ambassador to the UN towards the end of the Clinton administration, he managed to improve rocky relations between that collective body and the US. Like various formidable figures of the State Department, Holbrooke also proved adept at raking in financial proceeds, milking Walk Street during the Reagan years with considerable success and establishing a consulting firm, Public Strategies, which was eventually sold to the ill-fated Lehman Brothers.
His demeanor as a bruiser was considered ill-suited to the role of Secretary of State, something which he is considered to have lost out on to a duller Madeleine Albright. But his clout and toughness as a diplomat were renowned. President Obama was never left in any doubt about it, barraged by his didactic style and bluster. He also won a host of admirers, one being the veteran journalist Nicholas D. Kristof, who regarded his role in public service as 'legendary' (Dec 13, NYT).
His latest challenge seemed almost insurmountable: dealing with the intractable conflict in Afghanistan and an unstable Pakistan, with the looming presence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. With an ally such as the Afghan President Harmid Karzai, he might well have been wishing for more honest enemies.
His death also lays bare the fundamental contradictions within the Obama administration's counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal resigned after his candid remarks for Rolling Stone, suggesting an unraveling of a unified position. The Afghan surge has been stifled. Heavy force is now favored by the International Crisis Group - bombing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The US intelligence establishment is bothered and a latest report by Chatham House describes the virtual banditry taking place within Afghan government circles as akin to that of a 'mafia state'. While US officials are dismissed and fall out of the picture, the Taliban grows stronger. The loss of Holbrooke, one of American diplomacy's more talented figures, will be even more sorely felt.