Seeking Peace and Making Enemies
By Michael Dobbs
Two decades ago, a rising foreign policy star named Richard C. Holbrooke wrote an admiring magazine profile of Henry A. Kissinger, who was then engaged in his groundbreaking shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Israel. His verdict: "brilliant, but deeply flawed."
"He is clearly an extremely difficult man, difficult to trust, difficult to work for," wrote Holbrooke of Kissinger, "a . . . mixture of the exceptionally good and the unnecessarily bad."
There are many people, both inside and outside the Clinton administration, who have used similar phrases to describe Holbrooke himself. Many concede he is a superb negotiator with a unique ability to seize the moment and size up his opponents -- qualities demonstrated as he has shuttled in recent weeks between Balkan capitals in pursuit of a U.S. peace initiative. But they usually go on to point out a string of flaws, including an almost narcissistic habit of self-promotion, and a manipulative, domineering streak that has made him many enemies.
"Dick has some recognizable Kissinger characteristics," said Donald F. McHenry, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who worked with Holbrooke during the Carter administration. "They are both wily, bright, ambitious. They have an ability to decide where they are headed and doggedly pursue their goals. Both have reputations for manipulativeness, for not always telling the truth."
The fact that a second-tier bureaucrat -- his title is assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs -- gets compared to the mighty Kissinger is indicative of the special place that Holbrooke has carved out for himself in this administration. It is safe to say there is no one at the State Department who is at once more admired and more disliked. His rows with his nominal superiors, including national security adviser Anthony Lake, have been the subject of widespread gossip, as has his colorful private life, including two divorces, a long association with TV personality Diane Sawyer and a third marriage this year.
As the U.S. peace initiative in Bosnia has begun to produce its first tentative fruits -- yesterday the rebel Bosnian Serbs allowed Sarajevo airport to reopen, although it remains unclear whether they will meet a NATO deadline to remove heavy weapons around the city -- arguments already are raging in Washington over how much credit belongs to Holbrooke. His supporters say no one is better suited to knocking some sense into the heads of Balkan warlords. His opponents insist that recent American diplomatic successes are largely the result of changed circumstances on the ground, and a policy review in Washington that Holbrooke had little to do with.
"There was no one else who was ready to take on the role of Balkan negotiator," said Holbrooke's longtime friend, Les Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Dick is a man of gargantuan traits, who jumps into the biggest boiling pot, and does so with intelligence, ambition and a desire to make a difference."
Holbrooke's admirers cite his success in persuading the leaders of the warring Bosnian factions to agree at a Geneva meeting last week to the outlines of a future peace settlement. By all accounts, the meeting was on the verge of breakup several times. At one point, the foreign minister of Yugoslavia jumped up and started to walk out, only to be physically prevented from doing so by the bulky Holbrooke.
Holbrooke's critics attribute the diplomatic turnaround to a string of military victories by the Croats and forces of the Muslim-led Bosnian government, a desire by the president of neighboring Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, to end the economic embargo against his country and a willingness by the Clinton administration to use the long-threatened force of sustained NATO airstrikes to achieve its goals.
"It makes me sick to see this guy acting like Henry Kissinger," said one official, who asked not to be named. "The Bosnian Serbs were being bombed, and Milosevic was coming down hard on them. All this causes a change in behavior, not because Holbrooke is going over there and tormenting them."
Richard Holbrooke belongs to the once tightly knit group of Clinton foreign policy advisers who spent their formative years in Vietnam as aides to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Other members of the group include Lake, who joined the foreign service the same year as Holbrooke; Peter Tarnoff, No. 3 man in the State Department; and Frank Wisner, U.S. ambassador to India. They were glamorized in contemporary newspaper accounts as young centurions being sent out to spread democracy.
"Many very important relationships were formed in Vietnam," said Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, which was previously edited by Holbrooke. "When the Carter administration was being formed in 1976, Lake was a member of the transition team. He picked the others for key jobs."
Holbrooke ended up as an assistant secretary of state -- the same rank that he holds now. He also became godfather to Lake's second child. When the Republicans took over in 1980, he found a refuge on Wall Street, where he became a managing director of Lehman Brothers, with a base salary of around $900,000.
By the time the Democrats got back into office in 1992, Holbrooke's relationship with Lake had cooled considerably, for reasons neither man is prepared to discuss publicly. Other administration officials say that Lake finds Holbrooke a "disruptive" influence and resents the way in which he quickly dominates any meeting he attends. The two men have very different personalities. The outgoing Holbrooke is a master of the grand gesture, while the introspective Lake is a master of bureaucratic maneuvers.
The long-standing rivalry between the two men was reflected in a Lake profile in the New York Times magazine earlier this year, when Lake recalled an article that appeared in the Washington Monthly nearly 20 years earlier. "Dick Holbrooke was going to be national security adviser and I was the squishy softy who was going to run the Peace Corps, the Times quoted Lake as saying. "It was awful."
In view of his background, Holbrooke might have expected to get a top-flight job in the Clinton administration. Instead, he was dispatched as ambassador to Germany, a prestigious post but far from the Washington political hothouse. Several administration insiders said that Lake opposed the proposal of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Tom Donilon, chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to return Holbrooke to Washington in the summer of 1994 to take charge of the European portfolio.
Back at the State Department, Holbrooke immediately began smashing diplomatic crockery. He streamlined the previously somnolent European department, cutting out intermediate levels of bureaucracy and encouraging junior officials to report directly to him. He does not put up with fools easily. "If you can't explain your position in 35 seconds or less, then you are out the window," said one officer. "That kind of pressure is difficult for a lot of people."
The hot issue at the time -- and the reason why Holbrooke was brought back from Germany -- was NATO expansion. He soon picked a fight with Pentagon officials, accusing them of undermining the Clinton administration's attempts to include former Warsaw Pact countries in the alliance. A four-star general named Wes Clark fumed that it was the first time he had ever been accused of "disloyalty to the president".
In one of those almost Shakespearean twists of fate that sometimes characterize political life in Washington, Holbrooke and Clark last month stood on a Bosnian mountainside last month, staring in horror at an armored personnel carrier that had just gone over the edge. It contained the bodies of three other members of the U.S. negotiating team, which was on its way to Sarajevo for a meeting with Bosnian leaders. The two men have been virtually inseparable ever since.
"Wes was quite heroic," Holbrooke recalled, describing how Clark picked his way down the mountainside to attempt to rescue the diplomats, despite the risk of land mines. The next day, the two men returned to Washington with the bodies of their comrades.
Even by Kissinger's standards, the Balkans pace is relentless. It is quite common for Holbrooke to visit three cities a day, while he dispatches his five-man team off in another two directions. "They have done an extremely strong job," said Christopher, whose relations with Holbrooke have been strained in the past. "Dick has enormous skill and persuasiveness. This kind of work plays to his strengths."
The energy that Holbrooke brings to the negotiations is despite his evident frustration at being excluded from much of the planning process that led to the launching of the shuttle diplomacy. According to several sources, the key State department players during the planning stage were Tarnoff, policy planning chief Jim Steinberg, and Holbrooke's deputy, Robert Frasure, who was killed in the Mount Igman accident. Lake took the lead in coordinating inter-agency work on the initiative.
The Lake camp indignantly denies suggestions that Holbrooke was "cut out" of key White House meetings because of his "difficult" personality. Other administration officials described Holbrooke as his "own worst enemy." "He is so abrasive that people disagree with him just because of who he is," said one official. "He refuses to play the bureaucratic game."
Now that Holbrooke has been given a starring role in the Balkan drama, the strains between him and Lake appear to have been at least temporarily set aside. His new wife, author Kati Marton describes the relationship between her husband and Lake as "very complicated," but says that both men are "smart enough" to understand that they "need each other." She quoted Lake as telling Holbrooke, "Like it or not, we are joined."
"When we met in London, as I was leaving for the war zone, Tony told me, This is what we both dreamed about doing 30 years ago,' " Holbrooke said, recalling their common goal of changing the world for the better when they joined the Foreign Service together in 1962.
Holbrooke's supporters concede that some of the talents that make him a good negotiator in the Balkans -- including a tendency to bluster and threaten -- have hurt him in the bureaucracy. They praise him for his "unbelievable intellectual focus" and ability to go to the heart of a problem very quickly. "Most people feel intimidated by him," said one administration official. "There are a lot of people around here who would like to see him fail."