Richard Holbrooke: From Yugoslavia to Afghanistan

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Then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, right, escorts Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic across the tarmac at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, on 31 October 1995
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Richard Holbrooke achieved his greatest success in brokering a deal in the Balkans

Richard Holbrooke was the secretary of state who never was.

He was perhaps too much the professional diplomat and not enough the politician to get the top job.

He had a fault - he was more interested in actually resolving disputes and conflicts than in turning the results into personal political advantage. The determined and sometimes abrasive methods that brought him success in negotiations are not necessarily the qualities needed for achieving the highest office.

He was pipped by Madeleine Albright under President Bill Clinton and by Hillary Clinton under President Barack Obama, who wanted to keep his defeated rival inside the tent.

Problem solving was Mr Holbrooke's thing. Maybe he had memories of his early days when his parents, though Jewish by origin, took him to Quaker meetings.

These were his main challenges.

Former Yugoslavia

The early 1990s were dark years, when Western governments stood by wringing their hands - the then British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd accused those who wanted action of being members of the "something must be done club", asking for the unrealistic. In 1995 Mr Holbrooke changed all that. He seized the opportunity offered by Bosnian/Croatian military successes against the Serbs and the Nato decision after the Srebrenica massacre to finally intervene with air attacks.

His moment, the moment to talk, had come.

He isolated the participants at a remote airbase in Dayton, Ohio, and kept them there until agreement had been reached. The general assessment is that agreement would have been unlikely without him.

He established the principle that in a settlement, ethnic equality or balance can be achieved within existing structures without the need for borders to be redrawn. Such redrawing was and is absolutely against all tenets of modern diplomacy but it was Mr Holbrooke who found the way to reconcile this with reducing ethnic tensions. Whether it will last in Bosnia-Herzegovina is as yet an unanswered historical question but it certainly stopped a war.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

President Obama appointed Mr Holbrooke as a special ambassador but this conflict has not proved amenable to Mr Holbrooke's get-up-and go tactics. There are, however, suggestions in a new book by the US investigative reporter Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars, that Mr Holbrooke was pressing for a negotiated settlement in due course.

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Mr Holbrooke's work in Afghanistan yielded fewer prizes

Mr Woodward, presumably on the basis that Mr Holbrooke talked to him, speaks of Mr Holbrooke's belief that "the war - or the American role in the war - would not end in a military victory...

"There had been little discussion on reconciliation - how the warring parties could be brought together diplomatically. That might be far off but it had to be planned. How could the Taliban be lured off the field? Maybe it was fantasy. But they sincerely had to try."

Mr Holbrooke tried therefore to put the pieces in position on the board so that an end game could be planned more easily - he questioned the need for more troops, wanted a crackdown on Afghan corruption, action by Pakistan to stop safe havens for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and more security responsibility given to Afghans.

But Mr Woodward has a less-than-admiring section on Mr Holbrooke when he says at one point that, like others, Mr Holbrooke was "heavy on diagnosis but light on solutions". Mr Woodward remarks that several note-takers "set down their pens and relaxed their tired fingers" when Mr Holbrooke spoke. "The big personality had lost its sheen."

The Afghan war had probably not reached the stage where Mr Holbrooke's talents could have been best deployed.

Ambassador to UN

Probably not the job he wanted under President Clinton but he made the most of it, mainly by defusing a row between the US and the UN over money. He got a deal the US would pay less in future for but would pay its overdue contributions.

This was the kind of detailed arrangement that Mr Holbrooke had for breakfast. He also broke new ground in getting HIV/Aids recognised as a threat to the world's security and he pressed for greater attention to be given to Africa. But the UN was not perhaps the field on which he really wanted to play.

Ambassador to Germany

Mr Holbrooke was one of a breed of US diplomats who saw that the end of the Cold War meant that Germany had to be brought into the mainstream of US diplomacy, and he did much to point the way forward. But he also believed that it was not the moment to declare total peace and he pressed for the expansion of Nato to the borders of the former Soviet Union.


Mr Holbrooke recognised early on that "the relationship between the United States and China... is fast becoming the most important bilateral connection in the world".

Again, his instincts were always to search for diplomatic progress, for agreements, for deals. In the same Washington Post article in 2007, he spoke of China being ready to restrain North Korea, of China and the US having common interests (they were the world's biggest polluters, he noted). But he was being too optimistic perhaps, always the negotiator seeking a deal.

Greece and Turkey

An example of the Holbrooke talent for intervention came in 1996 when he was assistant secretary of state. Greece and Turkey were arguing over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean. Greece threatened action if Turkey took over the rock.

This could have led to conflict, even war, though both sides often made such threats. Mr Holbrooke and other US officials went to work by phone and got each side to back down and leave the rock alone. They could compromise through a strong US mediator, but not directly with each other.

That summed Mr Holbrooke up - the strong mediator, with a loud voice and backed by US power.