Holbrooke's war remark called banter, not entreaty

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

As friends and colleagues from four decades of diplomatic life reflected on the intensity of Richard C. Holbrooke's dedication, many were not surprised to learn that concerns about the Afghanistan war were apparently among his final thoughts.

After Holbrooke's death Monday, The Washington Post, citing his family members, reported that the veteran diplomat had told his physician just before surgery Friday to "stop this war."

But Tuesday, a fuller account of the tone and contents of his remarks emerged.

As physician Jehan El-Bayoumi was attending to Holbrooke in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, she told him to relax and asked what she could do to comfort him, according to an aide who was present.

Holbrooke, who was in severe pain, said jokingly that it was hard to relax because he had to worry about the difficult situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

El-Bayoumi, an Egyptian American internist who is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's physician, replied that she would worry for him. Holbrooke responded by telling her to end the war, the aide said.

The aide said he could not be sure of Holbrooke's exact words. He emphasized Tuesday that the comment was made in painful banter, rather than as a serious exhortation about policy.

Holbrooke also spoke extensively about his family and friends as he awaited surgery by Farzad Najam, a thoracic surgeon of Pakistani descent.

Holbrooke's statement was seized upon quickly by critics of the Afghan war debate, some of whom interpreted it as a clarion call to end the conflict. Others viewed his comment as a last-breath disavowal of the Obama administration's war policy, which has involved a troop surge - which Holbrooke publicly supported - to combat the Taliban. But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley cast Holbrooke's words simply as "humorous repartee."

Crowley said the comment "says two things about Richard Holbrooke in my mind. Number one, he always wanted to make sure he got the last word. And secondly, it just showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion."

Holbrooke's deputy, Frank Ruggiero, has been named to fill his post as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in an acting capacity, Crowley said, adding that no significant move had been made to select a permanent replacement.

chandrasek@washpost.com deyoungk@washpost.com


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