14 Dec 2010

Veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke dies

Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has died at the age of 69. Sarah Smith looks back at the life of the “foreign policy giant”.

Veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke dies

Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has died at 69.

A key figure in US foreign policy for decades he will be badly missed by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Especially as he was the key diplomatic figure in the region they all see as the greatest threat to America – what Holbrooke used “Af-Pak” to underline the deeply entwined problems the US sees in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Before he heard that Holbrooke had died, President Obama praised him as a “tough son of a gun”.

I remember being in the briefing room at the State Department when he turned up to explain his new job under President Obama. He was a large and commanding figure who filled the room and almost intimidated the experienced foreign correspondents – most of whom knew all about his legendary temper.

I am not a “special envoy” he told us. Apparently because envoys are sent to do things on behalf of their political masters. Holbrooke was to be a “special representative” which he clearly thought meant he would have a freer hand to pursue foreign policy his own way.

A former ambassador to the United Nations Holbrooke served every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson so its perhaps no surprise he found his way into Obama’s White House.

The feisty and sometimes abrasive diplomat enjoyed nicknames like The Bulldozer or Raging Bull.

But it raised quite a few eyebrows when he was first appointed. Holbrooke was heavily identified as an ally of Hillary Clintons’ and he had firmly supported her during the primary battle against Obama.

If the newly elected President had any reservations about putting his former arch-rival, Clinton, into the State Department then they seemed likely to be inflamed by giving her a right hand man like Holbrooke. A man with a reputation for creating drama, for loudly criticising rivals within government and for speaking a little too freely to the press.

He has always had many friends, supporters and admirers but they always seemed to be outnumbered by the rivals and enemies he has made along the way.

My friend Richard Holbrooke - by former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown

Giant of foreign policy

Earlier on Monday Obama said: “Richard Holbrooke has been serving this nation with distinction for nearly 50 years.

“He is simply one of the giants of American foreign policy. And as anyone who has worked with him knows, or has had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him, Richard is relentless. He never stops, he never quits.”

Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has written a message of condolence, saying: “Since I started in the job of Foreign Secretary, I have worked closely with Ambassador Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he has played a key role in establishing and developing the international contact group to support stability and peace in the region.

“His work will continue. One behalf of the British Government and his many friends here in the UK, I send my condolences to Ambassador Holbrooke’s family and to Secretary Clinton and the American people for this sad loss.”

His foreign policy career began in Vietnam and he even authored part of the Pentagon Papers – the secret history of the Vietnam war that was leaked to the New York Times – a kind of precursor to WikiLeaks.

President Barack Obama pays tribute to a 'unique figure'
"Michelle and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Richard Holbrooke, 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.

"One of his friends and admirers once said that, "If you're not on the team and you're in his way, God help you." Like so many Presidents before me, I am grateful that Richard Holbrooke was on my team, as are the American people.

"The United States is safer and the world is more secure because of the half century of patriotic service of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke."

He didn’t suffer much embarrassment in the US cables that have been leaked so far. His aggressive style of diplomacy maybe isn’t committed to paper too often.

His greatest triumph was in Bosnia – when under President Clinton he played a key role in negotiating the Dayton accords that ended years of fighting in the Balkans.

In The Washington Post, he recalled a tense negotiation in 1995 to open the besieged city of Sarajevo with three war criminals: Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

Reacting to an outburst by Karadzic, who got up to leave the negotiating table, Holbrooke told him that he could leave and make a phone call, but if he did, Holbrooke and the Americans would depart and “the bombing would intensify.”

The State Department have confirmed that on Sunday – while recovering from heart surgery – Holbrooke received calls from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.


As Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the long-time diplomat has made numerous visits to the region. Where he had made friends and enemies in unequal numbers but where he never wavered from his tough forceful negotiating style.

The feisty and sometimes abrasive diplomat enjoyed nicknames like “The Bulldozer” or “Raging Bull”.

Holbrooke’s death comes just days before the Obama administration’s latest review of the Afghanistan war, expected on Thursday.

Holbrooke had been meeting with Clinton in the State Department about midmorning Friday 10 Dec when he fell ill, collapsed and was rushed to the George Washington hospital a few blocks away.

He was suffering from a torn aorta, a condition in which a rip develops in the inner wall of the body’s largest artery, allowing blood to enter the vessel wall and weaken it. A condition which is often fatal.

Af-Pak importance

Holbrooke’s death comes just days before the Obama administration’s latest review of the Afghanistan war, expected on Thursday. His loss may make it harder for President Obama to persuade a sceptical Congress it’s necessary from US troops to stay until 2014. Holbrooke was expected to play a key part in helping Afghan security forces assume a greater role in the fighting.

He always wanted to be Secretary of State himself – not just the special representative, but he didn’t have the personality for that kind of lofty political office.

A flattering profile in the New Yorker described him last year:

“A close friend of Holbrooke’s joked, ‘If I paid attention to some of the specific things he did, I would have murdered him’.

“The friend said of Holbrooke’s aggressiveness, ‘He doesn’t even know he’s doing it, and that’s why he didn’t become Secretary of State. But, in terms of talent, it is far in excess of what you see around you.'”