The Interventionist


16th December 2010

For a born diplomat, Richard Holbrooke was often lost in translation. Too blunt, too impatient, too American, too driven, too much. That was what his critics would say— within the United States and around the world. And yet rarely was a man of such fierce and noble attachments—to family, to friends, to country and cause—so easily and persistently misunderstood. The paradox of Richard Holbrooke was that there was no paradox—what you saw was what you got. Patriot, true and affectionate friend, humanitarian, unceasing analyst and activist toward foreign affairs, Richard’s passions were there for all to see. He was a tireless interventionist—in America’s name—in every arena of human suffering, from war to human rights to HIV/AIDS.

He could flatter and cajole, maneuver and motivate as well as anyone. And yet Richard was at his core a man unadorned—without pretense or guile, calculation or deceit. These were, of course, weaknesses—not strengths—in the Washington circles he knew so well and that did so much to undermine his authority and impact during his last, impossible, tour of duty. And yet he persisted—with little care for the injuries to that ego everyone seemed to define him by—believing till the very end that his service ultimately was not to one president or party, but to the country he so passionately believed in as the final hope for a global order defined by something more than the power of the gun.

I first encountered Richard Holbrooke in a hand-written letter addressed to me when I was a 25-year-old associate editor at The New Republic, and he was an assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Clinton administration. I had edited a book of essays on the war in Bosnia, and a sentence ever so slightly critical of some aspect of his policy appeared on one of the pages. The response was direct and extensive. Yes, he wished to address the perceived criticism of his own actions, but more than that—always more than that—he wanted to educate, challenge, engage on the substance of the issue. When I later left journalism to serve as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia in the aftermath of the terrible war he did more than anyone to end, he encouraged me in ways small and large, knowing that I would see there the limits and possibilities of peacemaking after a terrible war gone on for far too long.

We met again at the U.N. in New York where I had joined the office of the secretary-general, and he came to serve his country in yet another arena of global conflict and compromise. Then too he was given an impossible mission. A U.S. Senate dominated by the bottomless parochialism of Jesse Helms had drained the position of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. of all value except petty accounting of America’s dues. Richard would listen patiently to Helms’s complaints—and even orchestrate his speech to a formal meeting of the Security Council—all as means to the end of making the United States an agent of progress on issues such as African development and HIV/AIDS. At the U.N., he reinvented himself as America’s lobbyist-in-chief, flattering alongside his remarkable wife Kati even the smallest member states by his personal attention and knowledge of their issues and concerns in a way few U.S. ambassadors—before or since—ever bothered to do. Ever impatient about process for process’s sake, Richard nonetheless understood better than any American statesman—left or right—that the world’s causes were often America’s too, or could be made so by diligent and imaginative diplomacy.

For Richard, the personal and the professional were never easily divided. He simply cared too much about people, as individuals and as groups, to think of foreign policy as mere abstractions about great power shifts or grand strategy. At the U.N., this translated into a fierce if often critical loyalty to Kofi Annan. Two men with little in common in character, outlook, or background formed a deep bond of friendship. Just how deep and decisive was made clear to me years later when Richard and I had both left public service for the private sector. One morning in November 2004, I received a typically blunt call from Richard: “Nader,” he started, “unless we do something Kofi is going to be destroyed by the oil-for-food business.” This was the height of the crisis facing the organization, and Richard warned (with characteristic prescience) that calls for Kofi’s resignation would soon come from high offices. He wanted to convene a small group of Kofi’s friends to offer him a candid assessment of the severity of the crisis, and the need for him to address the paralysis on the thirty-eighth floor and act aggressively to save himself—and the U.N.—from further disgrace. On a cold and clear Sunday afternoon three weeks later, a handful of us gathered in Richard and Kati’s apartment on Central Park West, and once again he took on a new role—this time as cajoler and conductor of brutally honest advice. Never before had this secretary-general been spoken to with such frankness, and in anyone else’s hands it would have most surely backfired. But Kofi knew that Richard’s intervention was a singular act of friendship, and moved shortly after to heed his advice and saved his secretary-generalship.

For all the intellectual and social intensity of his New York life, Richard always seemed out of his true element there. Not for him the worship of money or the pursuit of celebrity for celebrity’s sake. And so he soon found himself, once again, maligned and misunderstood in his relentless ambition to serve a young Democratic president with an evident need for help in managing a world of shifting powers and enduring conflicts. With steadfast, if often unrequited, loyalty he served an administration increasingly at sea in its engagement with powers large and small. Given the depth of the Afghan quagmire, it is not evident that Richard would have been able to alter the fundamental trajectory of America’s misbegotten mission there. What is clear is that he was the last of a generation of American statesmen who understood in their bones both the potential and the limits of the country’s reach in the world—and one of very few never to divorce its pursuit of global interests from its responsibility to ameliorate the human condition.

Last Tuesday night, six days before his death, I greeted Richard at our firm’s holiday party in Washington. Exhausted, intense, and distracted at the same time, he seemed to relax only when engaged on the question of negotiating with the Taliban. An hour later, he made his exit so he could return to his Sisyphean task. Was he hopeful? I don’t know. But he was doing his life’s work. And in that, perhaps, there is some small solace amidst our loss and grief.


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