WASHINGTON — I saw his picture in the Post, as if he were alive again. Morning coffee choked bittersweet spoonfuls of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the big thinker and fast talker who brokered peace in Bosnia, a great player on the world stage. Yet he fell short of a dream and rubbed a president the wrong way.
In November, HBO premieres The Diplomat, a documentary about Holbrooke that captures the bold spirit of the 1990s. Peace and prosperity is hard to argue with, and we were a sun to the world. The robust decade was defined by President Bill Clinton, the boss that loved him. Holbrooke’s 50-year-old son, David, conducts interviews.
The truest line in conversation: “Richard Holbrooke doesn’t die!” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said about her mentor. Yet he did, five years ago, serving President Obama on a thankless task in Afghanistan. He was 69 when he sat down with Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, and collapsed. She arranged for him to be rushed nearby to a doctor she knew. He slipped away, leaving this city in a blue funk. Holbrooke was always the brash New Yorker in the midst of official Washingtonians.
Dealing with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was one of Holbrooke’s talents. He had a flair for drama, packing to resume the shuttle to peace if he felt things were moving too slow at one world capital. He’d land at another with his team by nightfall. He engaged and charmed opponents with zest, whether it was on a tennis court or negotiating table. As he told a doubles partner: “Go easy on them. We need Eastern Slovenia.” Then he changed his mind: “Our national honor is at stake!”
Ending a war in the Balkans with the Dayton Accords (reached on an Air Force base in Ohio) was a spectacular coup for President Clinton and American post-Cold War leadership. That was 20 years ago this fall. Holbrooke’s memoir, To End A War, was greeted as “this brilliant and remarkable book,” by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
It’s no secret Holbrooke tried to do for President Obama what he did for Clinton, as special envoy to “Af-Pak,” Afghanistan and Pakistan. Simply, Obama never saw the blazing beauty of Holbrooke’s intensity and marginalized his advice and access.
The job literally broke Holbrooke’s lion-heart. He died in 2010, convinced conflicts in those parts were becoming albatrosses for America. He had recommended holding talks with the Taliban, reasoning you don’t make peace with your friends, but enemies.
The Clintons remained loyal to Holbrooke’s manic methods. But Obama became the boss that didn’t even like him. The new president felt Holbrooke talked too much, especially about Vietnam. There he saw firsthand the flaws in American strategy as a foreign service officer. In the new circle of presidential advisors, his Cassandra-like warnings weren’t welcome. Obama snubbed Holbrooke by not taking him on a visit to the region. At the packed Kennedy Center memorial service, Obama’s eulogy seemed the most dry-eyed.
That’s a fall from secretary of state. Al Gore said in The Diplomat he would have picked Holbrooke if he had become president, adding he understood not getting a dream job.
Let me ‘fess up. There was another man in that photo, behind Holbrooke, 15 years younger. He was working on Bosnia peacekeeping as a civilian Pentagon official. It was a fascinating journey for Thomas K. Longstreth, whom I knew well at the time. In fact, for a spell we fell in love in Berlin, highly recommended for that sort of thing. A few years later, I walked up a spiral staircase at a party as he walked down. Just about when that Post photo was taken.
In that breath, it was as if he were still alive. Had a chance to be SecDef — sorry, secretary of defense. The ’90s were the best years of his life. In a new book, The Age of Clinton, Gil Troy tried to unpack the magic of the 1990s. Holbrooke got one line of praise. But they can’t take peace in Bosnia away: a signature American achievement.
In the ambulance, Holbrooke told a top aide, Daniel Feldman: “I love so many people.” If only there were time and world enough for one more set.
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Official photo of Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, Nov. 11, 2009, via the State Department.