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Remembering Richard Holbrooke

Holbrooke, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died after surgery to repair a tear in his aorta.

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By Strobe Talbott
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Richard Holbrooke's legacy goes well beyond the critical role he played in bringing a decade of fragile peace in the Balkans, welcoming a reunified Germany in an expanding NATO and normalizing relations with China. He also leaves a vast, multigenerational, intercontinental network of friends.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke for many when she said on Monday that she had never so admired, so depended on and so cared for someone who drove her so crazy so often.

Richard, like each of us, was a package of complicated, not always harmonious, qualities. But in his case, the combination allowed him to epitomize the very best of what a single American can do to improve a dangerous world.

The obituaries are filled with words not always associated with eulogies: brash, aggressive, unyielding, exhausting. But put those together with effective, pragmatic, purpose-driven, indefatigable and idealistic, and they're redolent of our national character. Not the Ugly American, and certainly not the Quiet American, but the Can-Do, Must-Do, Get-the-Hell-Out-of-My-Way American. Larry Summers, who knew Richard well, captured the sum of his parts in a single phrase: The audacity of determination.

Richard was notoriously impatient with forms, politesse and process for its own sake. He valued deference only when he was on the receiving end. Partly for that reason, he was never entirely at home in this town, with its rules, rituals and rivalries. It wasn't quite a love-hate relationship (for all his ferocity of conviction and judgment, "hate" just wasn't in his vocabulary; Richard didn't waste much time on unproductive passions). Rather, his version of Potomac fever was a combination of allergy and addiction.

He complained bitterly about the pettiness of Washington politics, both personal and bureaucratic. In recent years, he shuttled down from LaGuardia at the beginning of the week with a strategy for getting home to New York by the weekend. Yet he was always ready for the trip back to Washington. He knew as well as anyone that, in the realm of statecraft, this is where the real action is. He loved that action more than anything, and he was relentless in trying to get his way. For him - whatever issue engaged his prodigious energies - the fate of the earth, or civilization, or maybe only the national interest depended on his bending people and events to his will.

Sometimes his style aroused resistance and resentment. But often, he was so solidly grounded in his command of the facts, so rigorous in his logic and so compelling in the essence of his position that any sensible target of his browbeating would have the good sense to discount the hyperbole and accept the force of his argument. And if the ensuing debate exposed a weakness in that argument, he'd listen, adjust and press ahead for a solution to the problem at hand.

A voracious reader (and writer, including for this page), Richard was never bashful about enlisting history on his side - or, for that matter, anticipating what future historians would say. In the 1990s, during high-stress moments in the Situation Room, the Cabinet room or the Oval Office, Richard would lecture those present on how future generations would not forgive us if we didn't take decisive action to stop the latest outrage in the former Yugoslavia, in Africa or in Southeast Asia. Eyes might roll, but the net effect was often agreement around the table, led by President Bill Clinton. As a result, talk would turn to action - an alchemy of which Richard was a master.

Nothing pleased him more than engaging the next generation. As special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he recruited up-and-coming diplomats, policymakers, aid specialists, intelligence analysts and military officers to form a team of non-rivals unparalleled in the quality and diversity of its expertise and skill. We must hope that President Obama and Secretary Clinton find a way to maintain this sterling example of how government ought to work despite the loss of its captain.

On a busy day some months ago, he was introduced to a 14-year-old girl who mentioned that she had some sense of what he was doing because she had read "The Kite Runner," a novel set in Kabul. Richard fixed his eyes on her and conducted a lively conversation with her for 20 minutes. Never mind if he was late to his next meeting. He had found someone who understood what was at stake in his last mission - and someone whose world is the better for all he accomplished.

The writer is president of the Brookings Institution and was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.



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