Determined and passionate people often get described as “abrasive” or someone who “ruffles feathers.” The fact that those descriptions have been applied to veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke only underscores the great loss the country and the world have suffered with Holbrooke’s untimely death this week.
Having abandoned an early desire to be a journalist, Holbrooke joined the foreign service, and spent his career doing what he might have done as a foreign correspondent – jumping on and off of planes and visiting one hellhole after another. But unlike foreign correspondents, Holbrooke had the profound, and very public, responsibility to try to make peace among peoples who often appeared bent on continuing fights that had been going on decades or even centuries.
If he grew frustrated at foreign leaders (his annoyance with the endemic corruption in Afghanistan a case in point), it was because it was personal to him. The mission of peace-making is arduous and maddening, and Holbrooke soldiered on with the process in so many troubled arenas, unwilling to give up hope for progress. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
In Belgrade in the late 1990s, I remember Holbrooke entering a hotel where journalists were staying, readying for what we all presumed to be an inevitable air attack by NATO. Holbrooke – who had brokered the 1995 Dayton accords ending the war in Bosnia – looked wrecked. It was the face of a man who had fought, and won, a peace accord just a few years earlier in the same region, and now was faced with what had become the West’s only option, to attack the nation that had been a party to those accords. Holbrooke, doing what diplomats must do, had engaged in the distasteful work of negotiating with murderous former Yugolslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to end the war in Bosnia. Holbrooke understood that making peace sometimes meant dealing with unsavory characters, and Milosevic was needed to stop the fighting in Bosnia. When Milosevic became a repeat offender in the then-southern Serb province of Kosovo, Holbrooke again tried to negotiate a peace, a mission many thought was unrealistic at best in a region that still nurtured feuds going back to the 14th century. Still, Holbrooke tried, and while the conflict was only ended after a NATO assault, Holbrooke should be commended for a final, valiant effort to prevent more deaths in the region -- even if it meant dealing with someone as barbarous as Milosevic. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
Holbrooke brought the same determination to his relentless work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If he was frustrated or aggressive in his dealings with foreign leaders, it was because he cared so much about achieving peace. May he so rest now.