A Remembrance of Richard Holbrooke

Orville Schell remarks on the passing of the Ambassador and Special Adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Ambassador Holbrooke at the official opening of the Center on US-China Relations, September 2007. (Photo by Elsa Ruiz)


The harder the challenge, the more it seemed to provoke his fierce determination to find a solution

While sitting in Istanbul's Attaturk International Airport waiting for a flight, I was stunned to hear a BBC announcer report that my colleague and friend U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had just died. I knew that, after collapsing during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department in Washington, D.C., he had been rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a torn aorta. But, despite the seriousness of his condition, it was still unimaginable that he would not prevail and recover. After all, had "Holbrooke," as his friends and colleagues always referred to him, not always prevailed? Had there ever been a challenge too daunting for him?

He was not only a physically tall and imposing man, but he came bathed in the glow of a larger-than-life aura of tough invincibility. Indeed, he seemed to have an almost autonomic response mechanism that enabled him to galvanize to confront problems. It was with this same can-do attitude that he approached diplomacy. The harder the challenge, the more it seemed to provoke his fierce determination to find a solution. It was hard to imagine him ever responding, "Well, I just don't think we can succeed here."

During his long diplomatic career in government, he was thrown into one difficult situation after another, from Indochina and China to Bosnia and Afghanistan. Despite the intractability of these challenges, his accomplishments were nonetheless so impressive that one was left wondering, What did he not do?

Holbrooke began his diplomatic career in Vietnam during the 1960s working first for the Agency for International Development and then for U.S. Ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge. During 1968-69, he was sent to the Paris Peace talks working with U.S. delegation leaders, the former governor W. Averell Harriman and future Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In 1971, he emerged as the author of one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the secret chronicle of America's role in the Vietnam War. From 1972-1977 he served as an editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. But, when Jimmy Carter became President, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs where in 1979 he played a key role in bringing about the normalization of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. During the 1980s, he went on to spend almost a decade as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers, where he became a wealthy man. In 1993, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Germany where he helped expand NATO. In 1994, he became Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs where from out of the crucible of Yugoslavian violence and chaos, he managed almost single-handedly to get the Dayton Peace Accords signed in 1995 to end the war in Bosnia. From 1999-2001, he served as the U.S.'s Chief Representative to the UN. In 2002, he became Chairman of the Board at the Asia Society. And then, when President Barack Obama took office, he was given the most challenging assignment of his career: deal with the disaster that was building in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

None of these posts or accomplishments, however, are how I will remember Holbrook. What will remain far more indelibly etched in memory will be his fierce commitment to any diplomatic assignment, cause or organization with which he became involved. Once he took on a role, he had a way of becoming so personally identified with it, that it became inseparable from his own sense of self. Once this bond was forged, he became as relentlessly devoted to promoting the outside interest as his own. He was a man of towering ego and ambition. It sometimes seemed as if no level of success wouldever be enough to slake the inexhaustible thirst for accomplishment that lay at the core of his being. But, this made him a dynamo of energy, as well as an extraordinarily reassuring person to be around. Everyone knew that once "Holbrooke" allied himself with something, he would not let it languish. Indeed, long after everyone else became discouraged and spent, he would still be going full-throttle, reading, meeting, digesting mails and working his cell like the tail-gunner on a bomber under attack.

When he was set on getting something done, he could be infuriatingly obsessive, compulsive and totalistic. He did nothing in halves and had a way of sucking all the air out of the room in the process. But by God, he got things done!

When as Chairman of the Board of the Asia Society he and President Vishakha Desai were courting me to come to join them in running their new Center on US-China Relations, I was able to watch Holbrooke in high gear. Once he knew what he wanted, all he wanted to do was, Get it done! In the summer of 2007, during the process of my hire, we were sitting in his office at Perseus Books one day talking about his aspirations for the new center. I was asking far too many questions for this get-the-job-done guy. As I think back on it, perhaps all my questions suggested to him that I was wavering in my interest. Whatever the case, without even asking me if I was available, he picked up the phone, ordered a private helicopter, called up Arthur Ross (the philanthropist who had endowed the new Center), told him we were coming for lunch; and then ordered me to get my effects together. An hour later, we were down at the 33rd St. East River chopper pad leaving for Easthampton, Long Island. A few hours later, we were sitting in Arthur Ross's living room on Long Island and I had taken the job.

The experience left me marveling at Holbrooke's presumptuousness, decisiveness and brazen sense of self-entitlement. It was as if he - then just a rainmaker at a publishing company - were still in command of a whole military unit with a fleet of aircraft at his disposal. I had also gained a hint of how this singular diplomat had managed to corral the likes of Slobodan Milošević into signing the Dayton Accords!

Over the next few years, I greatly enjoyed working with him on other projects, even when he would, for example, gratuitously keep me up all night "helping" me edit an article I had just written. Then, there was the time a group of us were flying back together from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Beijing very late at night. Suddenly I found him strolling down the aisle of the Mongolian Airlines plane to announce that he had no China visa. But, he announced with sovereign conviction, "Don't worry. I'll speak to them."

We spent the night in the ghostly emptiness of Capitol Airport on the phone to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, which very graciously aroused myriad officials from their slumber to oblige "Holbrooke's" dereliction and get him a visa.

His command performances could be trying. They were about his need to be involved in almost everything, but they were also expressions of his respect and friendship. The truth was that Holbrooke gave as good as he got. He wanted to excel. But, he also wanted his friends, whom he viewed as extensions of himself and his larger fraternity, also to do well. And, his friends were legion! He knew everyone! Many loved him. Some felt left behind each time he would stampede off to some new challenge and whole new galaxy of people would assemble around him. And then, there were some who just plain hated his guts.

"Holbrooke" was impatient, judgmental and full of bluster. Because he was so smart and had such good analytical ability, he quickly arrived at almost unshakeable conclusions about how something should be done. At such times, he was a difficult man to stand down, and his stubborn, often belligerent, forcefulness turned many people off. But, I found it fascinating to watch and somehow reassuring. I quickly learned that the best way to deal with him, was to play-a-long.  The truth was that, more often than not his strongly held views proved to be absolutely right. Indeed, what I admired most about him was the fact that, although he was not a China specialist, he was nonetheless someone from whom I learned an immense amount about China. Of course, over the years he had had a good deal of experience working with Chinese diplomats, so he understood the basic DNA that was in their negotiating systems. But, what really distinguished him from other generalists was his uncanny way of x-raying and understanding how "things worked" in the world at large. This gave him a profound depth of field and a laser-like ability to tease out what was really going on in Chinese affairs.

What I particularly appreciated about working with him at the Asia Society – whether on a task force, editing an article, planning an event, taking a trip or deciding on the best approach to China on some issue – was the fact that, although he was always pragmatic in his diplomacy, he never lost touch with his commitment to higher principles. Whether it was his devotion to solving the AIDS crisis, human rights issues (with which his wife Kati was deeply involved), humanitarian intervention or just intellectual and political discussion, I never felt that he allowed his basic moral backbone to bend. He was certainly capable of compromise, even of opportunism. But, one never felt during these times of pragmatic compromise that he ever lost touch with a deeply felt core-sense of what was really right and what was wrong.

On one occasion, he called me after he had met with a high-ranking Chinese diplomat, to say that he had had a rather acrimonious conversation with him about some of my writings that had not been well-received in Beijing. It would have been easy for Holbrooke to have demurred, and to have just distanced himself from me with the disaffected diplomat. But, he did not. I later heard that he had indignantly defended my right to write whatever I wanted. These are the kinds of things that one does not forget.

One quickly grew accustomed to his pugnacious, some times even hectoring, manner. He did not like to hear that a problem could not be solved. For him the question was not whether something could be done, but whether it should it be done. And how it could be done. More than this, he always expected everything to be done well. He had little tolerance for excuses. But, there were few who could be more generous with their time, more solicitous of younger people moving up the ladder of international relations or more willing to take on difficult challenges. Indeed, behind all mythology about his "toughness," there was something of a big teddy bear of a man inside, a person also capable of great emotion, devotion and commitment.

It was precisely because those of us who were privileged to work with him in so many different capacities had become so accustomed to relying on this imposing, defiant man to lead the way, that it seemed so unimaginable that, when he fell ill, he would not somehow be able to overcome that one, small, ruptured aorta. To die in the prime of life with so many critical problems in the world still unsolved was so unlike him. When I heard that final report on BBC solemnly announcing that Ambassador Richard N. Holbrooke had died, it seemed almost unthinkable that this man who had succeeded in fixing so much in the world, should finally have proven so mortal and so unable to fix himself.

"If there was one person I thought of as indestructible, it was certainly Holbrooke," the well-known American writer Mark Danner, who had chronicled Holbrooke's efforts to end the Bosnian War, emailed me just after he had learned of his death. "Somehow I had thought at the back of my mind that he would surprise everyone and recover."

But, he did not. And, with his death, one more huge and important piece of that "can-do" part of America that has made the country strong and optimistic has now irrevocably broken off and drifted away to oblivion.