‘Indispensable’ nation farewells ‘irreplaceable’ diplomat

17 December 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

At 69, veteran United States diplomat Richard Holbrooke died relatively young but in a manner which will do his reputation no harm.

The special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan reportedly collapsed during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then picked himself up and walked out of the State Department. At hospital, more than twenty hours of surgery to repair a ruptured aorta could not save him.

He was, according to Barack Obama, ‘a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected’. ‘He was one of a kind’, said Hillary Clinton. ‘A true statesman’. ‘Irreplaceable’ was the verdict of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. 

The Afghans were less fulsome. President Hamid Karzai – with whom Holbrooke had reportedly had a difficult relationship – pointedly described Holbrooke as ‘a big loss for the American people’.

Senior members of the American press wrote glowing tributes for a man who might have been one of them. Holbrooke had wanted to work for the New York Times before he joined the Foreign Service. Later, he spent five years as editor of Foreign Policy magazine, now a Washington fixture but founded in 1970 in a spirit of rebellion. It was a time, Holbrooke recalled earlier this month, when the venerable journal Foreign Affairs was given to running articles with titles like ‘Mexico Looks North and South’ and ‘Whither Spain’. Foreign Policy was founded to be a relevant and investigative corrective.

The Washington Post obituary remembered ‘a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years’. Holbrooke was ‘inevitably the brightest guy in the room,’ according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. ‘Holbrooke’s labors on behalf of the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan’, wrote The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan, ‘were as immense as his efforts on behalf of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia’. (The World Socialist Web Site dutifully ran an obit titled ‘Long-time operative for US imperialism’.)

The man so generously farewelled was a famous practitioner of a craft newly exposed to public scrutiny, as well as an unapologetic servant of America’s national interest who won praise as a peacemaker.

His was a particularly American career. A Democrat, Holbrooke was out of government during Republican administrations – time he spent traveling, writing columns, making money on Wall Street and advising Democratic presidential campaigns. Not the career path of any Westminster civil servant.

More to the point, it was a career that could only be had in the service of the United States – the nation which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates still calls the ‘indispensable nation’, and which former Economist editor Bill Emmott calls ‘the world’s chief bearer of burdens and payer of prices’.

From Vietnam and the Paris peace talks to Morocco with the Peace Corps to the reunified Germany, Holbrooke’s work mirrored America’s unparalleled global reach. Extracting the Dayton agreement from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic ended the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia. Achieving progress in Afghanistan – Holbrooke’s final assignment – proved more elusive.

Holbrooke leaves behind an American mission in Afghanistan of uncertain success. On Thursday, President Obama announced ‘fragile and reversible’ gains against the Taliban since the troop surge, admitting that ‘progress has not come fast enough’. The United States has now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union. Holbrooke correctly predicted that it would become America’s longest war.

And Holbrooke’s death does mark the fading of an era – not his, but that of President John F. Kennedy and the young people he inspired to public service.

‘I’m a product of the Kennedy era’, Holbrooke recalled last year. ‘Kennedy’s Inaugural plus the accident of Dean Rusk brought me into the government. Those were my values’.

Rusk was Kennedy’s secretary of state, and the young Holbrooke was friends with his son. Kennedy’s inaugural address speaks for itself.

It was Kennedy who set out a liberal yet pragmatic case for peace. Working through the wars of Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, Holbrooke surely knew the words:

‘For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.’

Stephen Minas, a journalist, completed a Master in international relations at the London School of Economics and did postgraduate research at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. Twitter @StephenMinas