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

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 5:08 PM

Longtime U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, whose relentless prodding and deft maneuvering yielded the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia - a success he hoped to repeat as President Obama's chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan - died Monday in Washington of complications from surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69.

A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals worldwide. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan.

Obama praised him as "a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the United States "has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants."

The death could have a profound impact on the administration's efforts to implement aspects of its strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which relies not just on military gains but development assistance and diplomatic initiatives with the governments in Kabul and neighboring Pakistan that had been his principal focus.

Mr. Holbrooke's expansive career began in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where he served as a field officer, and included appointments as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state in U.S. history. When Republicans were in power, he was a banker, a journalist and a best-selling author.

His most prominent role was as a presidential wartime problem solver, to which Mr. Holbrooke applied an unwavering energy, a flair for diplomatic improvisation and a hard-charging style that could yield dramatic breakthroughs but also generate bitterness and enmity, even among his American teammates.

Although the consequences of his forceful personality were laid bare in his efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to tense disagreements with leaders of those nations and fellow U.S. officials, Mr. Holbrooke never stopped trying to address the insurgencies that threaten both countries.

Over the past year, he maintained a peripatetic existence, often subsisting on just a few hours of sleep at night, as he globe-trotted to shore up allied support for the war and a costly reconstruction program.

"As anyone who has ever worked with him knows - or had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him - Richard is relentless," Obama said earlier Monday at a State Department holiday reception. "He never stops. He never quits. Because he's always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interests, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged."

A defining moment

Mr. Holbrooke's most significant achievement occurred in 1995, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, when he forged a deal among bitter rivals to end three years of bloody sectarian war in the former Yugoslavia that killed an estimated 100,000 people.

The talks, which lasted 20 days, would not have taken place had he not spent three months shuttling among the principal Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders to cajole, arm-twist and threaten, while also employing the bone-jarring power of U.S.-led NATO airstrikes.

Mr. Holbrooke approached the dispute not as a principled ideologue but as a pragmatic mediator who kept his gaze constantly on what was possible. Some criticized him for interacting closely with the then-president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic. But Mr. Holbrooke said he had no moral qualms about "negotiating with people who do immoral things."

"If you can prevent the deaths of people still alive, you're not doing a disservice to those already killed trying to do so," he said.

Mr. Holbrooke, who described the negotiations as "unbelievably difficult," had been a fierce critic of the international community's reluctance to take a more active role in addressing the conflict during its early years, calling it "the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s."

Sen. John F. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Holbrooke's "life's work saved tens of thousands of lives."

(See photos of Mr. Holbrooke throughout his diplomatic career.)

Although Mr. Holbrooke was a liberal whose Vietnam War experience defined his approach to the world, he supported American intervention in discrete cases. The United States' role in ending the war in Bosnia, he said later, made American foreign policy "more assertive, more muscular."

The same success eluded him in Afghanistan, where Taliban leaders have not been willing to negotiate despite the presence of almost 100,000 U.S. troops. But his mission was far broader than just working on a peace deal: He was charged with revamping the entire civilian assistance effort, a critical component of the overall U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.

In the nearly two years that Mr. Holbrooke held the post of the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he reorganized diplomatic structures, overhauled U.S. reconstruction programs and pressed the Afghan government to do more to tackle corruption and provide essential public services.

Although he was generally upbeat about progress in his public comments, he was deeply frustrated with President Hamid Karzai and his administration, as well as with many officials in the U.S. government - all of whom he thought were not acting with sufficient alacrity.

Karzai, whose aides accused Holbrooke of paying more attention to Pakistan and India than to their own country, offered a subdued statement of condolence at the diplomat's death, saying he "served greatly the government and the people of the United States."

Despite the many parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam, Mr. Holbrooke remained convinced that the two conflicts were not analogous and that a combination of the right strategy and resources would be able to turn around the Afghan war.

Although his active involvement in Democratic Party politics meant he was sidelined during Republican administrations - often using those years to publish blistering critiques of foreign policy under those presidents - he nevertheless elicited praise and respect from his political opponents.

President George H.W. Bush once described Mr. Holbrooke to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen as "the most persistent advocate I've ever run into."

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said, "If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just say yes. If you say no, you'll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful."

'Holbrooke stories'

Mr. Holbrooke was virtually a literary creation - the sort of man who seemed to read everything, know everybody and do everything. He counted legions of people as "close friends," and all of them had "Holbrooke stories" about his excesses, his vanities, his jealousies and his enormous capacity to keep their friendship and his own sense of humor.

The hulking, broad-shouldered Mr. Holbrooke knew presidents and prime ministers, journalists and policy wonks - and he wanted to make sure everyone he knew knew one another.

At cocktail receptions and dinner parties, he frequently dragged people across the room for an introduction to someone they just "had to know." The introductions always came with extensive praise of one friend being introduced to another.

While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke's traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading.

On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White's memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence.

Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because "they will always need us more than we need them."

Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, "Nothing ever changes."

On the ground, Mr. Holbrooke was indefatigable. There was always one more conversation to be had, one more phone call to make. During a 2009 visit to a refugee camp in Pakistan, he spent hour after hour trudging through the dirt, walking into stifling tents, sticking out his hand and introducing himself to seemingly terrified families. He quickly put them at ease, inviting himself to sit down cross-legged on the dirt floors and asking about their lives.

On the road, whether he had spent the day traipsing around Afghanistan or Pakistan, or in high-level meetings, Mr. Holbrooke often treated his entire staff - and anyone else who was hanging around - to dinner, taking great pleasure in finding just the right hole-in-the-wall spot, or opulent restaurant, to make the night memorable.

Early years

Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was born April 24, 1941, in New York City, where his father was a physician. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland. When he was 16, his father died and he was taken under the wing of the family of a future secretary of state, Dean Rusk, whose son was Holbrooke's friend in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Mr. Holbrooke graduated in 1962 with a history degree from Brown University, where he was the editor of the Brown Daily Herald. He had wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but when the New York Times turned him down, he joined the Foreign Service.

His marriages to lawyer Larrine Sullivan and television producer Blythe Babyak ended in divorce. In 1995, he married Kati Marton, a writer and journalist, who once said she found in Mr. Holbrooke "this great, wonderful physicality, this very tactile big-bear quality."

Besides Marton, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, David and Anthony Holbrooke; two stepchildren, Elizabeth and Chris Jennings; a brother, Andrew Holbrooke; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Holbrooke was sent to Vietnam in 1963, assigned to the lower Mekong Delta as a field officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a post that would later give him unique perspective on reconstruction efforts and provincial stabilization in Afghanistan.

His insights drew the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and he was soon moved there to serve as a staff assistant to two ambassadors, Maxwell D. Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

In 1966, he joined the Vietnam staff in the Johnson White House, where he had a front-row seat for what came to be considered an unwise escalation of U.S. military forces based on deceptive assessments.

"Our beloved nation sent into battle soldiers without a clear determination of what they could accomplish and they misjudged the stakes. And then we couldn't get out," he said this year at a State Department conference on the American experience in Southeast Asia. ". . . We fought bravely under very difficult conditions. But success was not achievable. Those who advocated more escalation or something called 'staying the course' were advocating something that would have led only to a greater and more costly disaster afterwards."

He quickly developed a reputation for writing brash but influential memos, earning the nickname "the Bulldozer." In November 1967, Mr. Holbrooke drafted one such document, a 17-page paper for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the name of Nicholas Katzenbach, then the undersecretary of state, that argued that North Vietnam was winning the battle for public opinion in the United States.

"Hanoi uses time the way the Russians used terrain before Napoleon's advance on Moscow, always retreating, losing every battle, but eventually creating conditions in which the enemy can no longer function," he wrote. "For Napoleon it was his long supply lines and the cold Russian winter; Hanoi hopes that for us it will be the mounting dissension, impatience, and frustration caused by a protracted war without fronts or other visible signs of success; a growing need to choose between guns and butter; and an increasing American repugnance at finding, for the first time, their own country cast as 'the heavy.' "

Mr. Holbrooke was a junior member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks aimed at ending the war, and he wrote a chapter of the Pentagon Papers, the government's secret history of the conflict.

By 1970, he moved on - first to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, where he was a fellow, and then to Morocco, where he served as Peace Corps country director - but the searing lessons of the war remained. "Leaving Vietnam behind did not mean getting it out of one's system," he said.

In 1972, he helped found Foreign Policy magazine and was its managing editor for almost five years. After serving as a campaign adviser to Jimmy Carter, he was appointed, at age 35, as the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

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.

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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