Richard Holbrooke was, as the obits have it, a “giant of diplomacy.” Indeed, he has a claim to being one of the most influential diplomats in American history who never became secretary of state — a job he should have been given by President Clinton. He is edged out by George Kennan in the annals of American diplomatic history, but his achievement in hammering out the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia is as impressive as any feat of negotiations in the post–World War II era.
He was much less successful in his latest job as the administration’s chief “AfPak” envoy. Why is that? Part of the reason was his mistake in alienating Hamid Karzai; an American envoy’s job is to talk tough behind the scenes but to preserve relations with an important allied head of state. Holbrooke, inexplicably, failed to do that. But most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke. The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.
By the time Holbrooke was called upon to negotiate an end to the Bosnian fighting, the combatants had been exhausted and Serbian attempts at aggrandizement had been stymied, first by a Croatian offensive, then by NATO bombing. They were ready to cut a deal. Not so the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad. General David Petraeus has only now launched in earnest the military operations necessary to frustrate Taliban designs and compel elements of the group to negotiate or face annihilation. Without the effective use of force, not even a diplomat as supremely skilled as Holbrooke could achieve success.
A personal note: I knew Holbrooke slightly and liked him. I realize he had a reputation in Washington for being abrasive and egotistical; that reputation probably cost him the secretary of state job that he coveted and had earned. But effective diplomats can’t afford to be shrinking violets. Sure, Holbrooke had an outsize personality, but so did Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and other diplomatic superstars. Like them, Holbrooke also had enormous reservoirs of intelligence , savvy, and learning. And like them, he was a skilled writer; his memoir of the Dayton peace process was a classic. One of many regrets about his premature passing is that the world will be denied his memoirs.
He was a liberal but a tough-minded one — one of the last prominent hawks in the Democratic Party. He was, in short, a “neo-liberal,” which isn’t so far removed from a “neo-conservative,” a label that I teased him with and that he naturally resisted. The country as a whole will miss him, and so in particular will the Democratic Party, which could use more of his bracing realism in its counsels.