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Richard Holbrooke dies: Veteran U.S. diplomat brokered Dayton peace accords

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Leaders and officials around the world have hailed late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke as "best and brightest."

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Mr. Holbrooke left government at the start of the Reagan administration and helped form the Public Strategies consulting firm, which was later sold to Lehman Brothers. In 1993, with a Democrat back in the Oval Office, he hoped for a senior job in the White House or the State Department, but the best he could do was the ambassadorship in Germany. The following year, he moved back to Washington to assume another assistant secretary post at State, this time for European affairs - the position he held when he brokered the Dayton accords.

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Mr. Holbrooke returned to the private sector in early 1996. At his farewell ceremony, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher joked that he had to encourage the "self-effacing" Holbrooke to "come out of your shell. Don't be afraid to let people know what you think."

His subsequent memoir of his Bosnia work, "To End a War," was widely acclaimed.

In 1999, he returned to government service as President Bill Clinton's U.N. ambassador, where he pushed for more peacekeeping forces and drew attention to conflicts in Africa.

Back in action

Soon after Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, Mr. Holbrooke became her self-appointed senior foreign policy adviser and, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, he cast his lot with Clinton, hoping to become her secretary of state. When she lost the nomination, he sought to ingratiate himself with Obama's camp. But when Clinton got the job he wanted, she turned to him to help resolve one of Obama's most intractable problems.

"When I came to the State Department, I was delighted to be able to bring Richard in and give him one of the most difficult challenges that any diplomat can face," Clinton said Monday. "And he immediately put together an absolutely world-class staff. It represents what we believe should be the organizational model for the future: people not only from throughout our own government, but even representatives from other governments all working together."

Even among his closest friends, Mr. Holbrooke's many assets - intellectual acuity, negotiating skills, experience working on some of the toughest foreign policy problems of his generation - were sometimes also counted as liabilities. To some, his brilliance translated as arrogance, his experience interpreted as know-it-all-ism.

"He's the most egotistical bastard I've ever met," Vice President-elect Biden told President-elect Obama as Clinton made her choice known, according to an account by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. "But maybe he's the right guy for the job."

His long diplomatic career positioned him perhaps better than anyone else in the Obama administration to navigate the often-messy intersection of diplomacy, counterinsurgency and politics.

Mr. Holbrooke felt a strong responsibility, as the only person in the administration who had lived and worked through Vietnam, to bring up his perspectives of that conflict during the three-month White House policy review last year that led to the current strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Holbrooke's sometimes-abrasive style raised hackles in the administration and partner governments, including with Karzai. James L. Jones, then Obama's national security adviser, tried to persuade the president to fire Mr. Holbrooke, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, but Clinton intervened to protect his job.

Mr. Holbrooke had his own frustrations with internal sniping, congressional reluctance to fund the diplomatic and economic sides of the war effort, and the increasing power of the military to influence policy.

His stock rose and fell numerous times during the past two years as his intense yet open way of doing business - including extensive contacts in the media - made him a particular target of the military and some in the White House.

Mr. Holbrooke's office on the State Department's ground floor was filled with a diverse mix of policy experts and academics, some of whom were hired precisely because they disagreed with the George W. Bush administration's Iraq war strategy and had little better to say about Obama's efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He was a strong advocate of major increases in development and governance aid. Under his direction, the number of U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan has more than tripled, to exceed 1,000.

One of his first initiatives was to end the U.S. focus on poppy eradication in Afghanistan, on the grounds that removing the livelihood from opium production that sustained many Afghan farmers was counterproductive.

Mr. Holbrooke crossed swords with another part of the administration in Pakistan, where he ordered an end to the automatic renewal of aid contracts with U.S. and other foreign nongovernmental organizations with long histories there.

Mr. Holbrooke experienced health problems in August, when he underwent treatment for heart problems and canceled one of his frequent trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Friday morning, he was taken to George Washington University Hospital after he became flushed and suffered chest pains during a meeting with Clinton.

He underwent a 21-hour operation that ended on Saturday to repair his aorta.

As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

Share your memories. Read more:

David Ignatius: Richard Holbrooke, a force of personality

Richard Cohen: Holbrooke, an extraordinary man

Post editorial: Richard Holbrooke's relentless work for American leadership

Foreign Policy remembers Richard Holbrooke

chandrasek@washpost.com

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.


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