Max Boot’s appreciation of Richard Holbrooke called to mind a sense among the military officers working the Balkans problems in 1995 that Holbrooke was “old school.” Most of us had come of age professionally in the Reagan and the Bush 41 years. We were accustomed to dealing with diplomatic envoys of awe-inspiring preparedness and a certain very American style: hard to describe in few words, but entailing a reliable and irreducible simplicity when it came to our common objectives. That quality could be combined with crustiness and high-handedness, but it was not unwelcome: you could do business with it.
Clinton appointees were a different story. With their penchant for triangulation and interpolation, they tended to produce shifting objectives and temporary principles. Guidance changed regularly. There were times when the U.S. forces working the Balkans problem — I was stationed at a headquarters in Italy from 1992 to 1995 — had the unnerving sense that our political leaders in Washington didn’t have our backs.
Holbrooke, however, seemed to embody the style of an older generation of U.S. diplomats and negotiators. “Scoop Jackson Democrat” was a popular shorthand for describing him. He knew, understood, and appreciated the military way of perceiving a geopolitical problem — unlike many Clinton officials who were actively offended by the “military mindset.”
A good friend of mine went with him as a briefer on a helicopter tour of Bosnia and Croatia, early in Holbrooke’s lengthy orientation from the U.S. and NATO chains of command in the Balkans theater. When I asked afterward how the briefing went, my friend laughed and said, “Well, basically, he briefed me.” Expanding on that, he recounted that Holbrooke had broken into his spiel in the first few minutes, preferring to explain what he considered important and then engaging my friend in a level of discourse that picked his brain on complex topics.
“Guy knows what he’s doing,” concluded my friend. Not every civilian diplomat leaves that impression with the military. I haven’t agreed with all of Holbrooke’s ideas on “AfPak” since he took on that portfolio, but I am very sorry to see the Obama administration lose him. His entry onto the stage in the Balkans conflict brought a sense of order and purpose that was very welcome to the U.S. military in Europe, weary from several years of experimental and ineffective multilateralism. Richard Holbrooke was old school, in the best sense, and he will be missed.