Richard Holbrooke was a great man

by Russell's Rants

Originally published December 14, 2010


Ambassador Richard Holbrooke died yesterday evening after surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69 years old. He had collapsed last Friday in the Office of the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as the two of them were putting finishing touches on a new report on the Afghanistan war. Lincoln had his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to immediately eulogize him on his passing, saying, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Holbrooke gave his own last words before heading into surgery to be performed by a Pakistani-American doctor at George Washington Hospital: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan!” As President Obama’s special ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, stopping that war had been Mr. Holbrooke’s last mission.

And he well suited to stopping war. He had done so, most famously, in the Yugoslav wars in Bosnia in the mid-1990’s as President Clinton’s special envoy. In a Washington Post column a couple years back, he recalled a key meeting with Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, respectively, the president of the rump Yugoslavia and the general and president of Serbia. The Serbian general tried to stare down the American team. After the U.S. side presented the American demand to lift the siege of Sarajevo, Karadzic “exploded” and “raged in passable English about the ‘humiliations’ his people were suffering.” When Karadzic go up to leave, threatening to call former president Carter to complain, Holbrooke reminded Karadzic that he worked only for President Bill Clinton and that he could call President Carter if he wished but that “we would leave and that the bombing would intensify.” They all sat down and after 10 hours of negotiation reached an agreement to lift the siege. After over three years of war, “Two months later the war would end at Dayton, never to resume.”

Holbrooke outlived Milosevic, who died in jail in the midst of his war-crimes trial in The Hague. Karadzic now sits in the same place facing similar charges. He had hoped to call Holbrooke as a witness at his trial on alleged offer of immunity that Holbrooke denies having given. Such testimony will not now happen and would not have been helpful.

In today’s “Balkan Insight,” Holbrooke was eulogized as “the leading voice behind the Rambouillet negotiations over Kosovo’s status in March 1999, and the subsequent US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.” “Without Holbrooke’s efforts, the Bosnian war might have continued in an indefinite stasis as the parties fought themselves to a halt.”

We don’t have many great men these days. Richard Holbrooke was one of them.