Richard Holbrooke's Lonely Mission

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Richard Holbrooke in Kabul, Afghanistan in July 2009 Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images

The memorial service at Washington’s Kennedy Center last week had the trappings of a state funeral. President Barack Obama was there, former president Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan flew in for the occasion, as did scores of other dignitaries. The man they came to honor, Richard Holbrooke, had been a diplomat on and off for more than 40 years when he died last month at the age of 69. He might have been secretary of state, but never was, and may well have deserved a Nobel Prize for bringing the Bosnian war to an end in 1995, but never got it. Never mind. As Obama said in his tribute, “By the time I came to know Richard, his place in history was assured.” Holbrooke would have gotten a chuckle out of it all, especially listening to the president paying such homage. He could have used some more of that support when he was still on the job.

Richard Holbrooke’s last official title was “special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” or SRAP in D.C. speak, and even his eulogizers last week acknowledged it was the toughest assignment of his life. Holbrooke was the diplomatic point man supposed to be sorting out the most complicated, most costly, and most dangerous of the wars that the United States is fighting. It involves so much more than Taliban bombs by the side of the road, or boots on the ground, or poppies raised for opium in Afghan valleys. At bottom, it’s about nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is sometimes an ally, sometimes an enemy, of the American effort in Afghanistan.

If there are limits to murderous fanaticism, Pakistan is still trying to find them. In recent weeks, it has started to look like a society sliding toward madness. A treacherous young bodyguard guns down the distinguished governor of Punjab for objecting to the death sentence on a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Mobs—and even a group of young lawyers—hail the killer as a hero. This was the kind of crisis where Holbrooke’s insights and his capacity for action could be hugely helpful, and in which he’s sorely missed. “I loved the guy because he could do—and doing in diplomacy saves lives,” said Bill Clinton.

What Holbrooke did, however, he did not always do gently, or subtly, or deferentially. He was famously arrogant and abrasive. When Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a very close friend of Holbrooke’s, spoke, he called him “the quintessential Washington know-it-all.” Bill Clinton said he was “a hurricane of eloquence and energy and force,” but he’d “scream and claw and scratch and make you feel like you had a double-digit IQ if you didn’t agree with him.” On another occasion, a colleague observed: “His friends were amused by his antics. But if you weren’t a friend, you found it hard to take.”

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Holbrooke’s critics suggest (off the record, because they don’t want to sound churlish now that he’s gone) that he was his own worst enemy. But that’s misleading. Interviews with those who knew Holbrooke in Kabul, Islamabad, New York, Brussels, and Washington make clear he had a great many adversaries. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai treated him with paranoid fury. Pakistan’s leaders sometimes lied to him, and about him. The Taliban tried to take him out with sniper fire and suicide bombers. And among those who worked to undermine the man, even to the detriment of his vital mission, were at least a few people in the White House who understood neither the man nor, indeed, his mission.

“Dick Holbrooke would have been Obama’s best ally,” lamented Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, one of his contemporaries and closest friends. “Obama had just the right hammer he needed in Dick for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Obama’s failure to see that—and his staff’s failure to see that—really cost him and our country. What in God’s name would make you not make full use of Dick Holbrooke?”

Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2008, she would have made Holbrooke her secretary of state. Her seventh-floor office in Foggy Bottom was as friendly as territory gets in Washington. On the morning of Dec. 10, he arrived there late and in a rush. Overweight and exhausted, he shrugged off his coat and sat down heavily. The meeting could begin.

Then, suddenly, his chest began to heave. His neck and face turned “scarlet red,” Clinton recalls. As blood rushed to his head, he put his hands over his eyes.

“Richard, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” said Holbrooke. “I’ve never felt like this before.”

“You’re going to a doctor immediately,” Clinton told him. “Can you walk?”

Holbrooke said he could, but when he got downstairs to see the in-house physician, he collapsed. Clinton, who thought he was having a heart attack, alerted her personal internist at George Washington University Hospital, less than five minutes away, to make sure the emergency room—which stands ready to treat the president if necessary—was primed to receive Holbrooke. But Holbrooke, being Holbrooke, tried to direct the ambulance driver to Sibley Hospital, almost six miles away. Clinton countermanded the patient’s orders.

From the ambulance, Holbrooke called his wife, Kati Marton, an author and journalist, in New York. “I’m in terrible pain and have no feeling in my leg,” he said. “I’m on my way,” she told him.

Holbrooke’s aorta, the largest artery in the body, had torn open, a condition often associated with high blood pressure. When he arrived at GWU Hospital, one of the doctors, trying to get him to relax, asked Holbrooke to think of something pleasant like, say, the Caribbean. Holbrooke, who hated beaches, said he’d rather think of a beautiful woman, like his wife. Wincing in pain, he kept up the banter. Only half joking, he said, “Ending the war in Afghanistan—that would relax me!”

The remark was reported around the world, as if those were Holbrooke’s dovish last words. The Taliban even quoted a version of it as proof of American defeatism. But ending the war in a way that would best serve U.S. interests had always been Holbrooke’s mission, and he wasn’t calling on divine providence to carry that out. He thought, until the day he died, that he was the man to do the job.

Holbrooke’s closest friends had tried to get him to slow down. They “told him for months to give up, get out,” says his wife. “I never joined the chorus, because I knew this is who he was. He didn’t want to sit in a Barcalounger kibitzing. He wanted, by millimeters, to nudge things in the right direction, and he needed to be inside to do that.”

Holbrooke was inside, yet from the day of his appointment in January 2009, his precise role had been confused and confusing. The fledgling Obama administration, eager to show how serious it was about Afghanistan and Pakistan, created for the star diplomat a post where he would coordinate not only within State but “across the entire government” an effort to achieve America’s strategic goals in the region. That, at least, is how Secretary Clinton described it. But with all that “coordinating” going on among so many powerful agencies and their jealous heads, the question that arose immediately was, “Who’s in charge?”

Holbrooke had no clear authority of his own, and no one had clear authority over him, so he tried to grab as much power as he could get. That immediately threatened players such as James Jones, the retired Marine general Obama chose as his national-security adviser, and Gen. Douglas Lute, a holdover from the Bush administration as the “war czar” overseeing the military side of the AfPak quagmire. Twice in the first 18 months, Jones casually told Holbrooke he should start looking for another assignment. Each time, Holbrooke ignored the hint as others in the administration assured him that Jones didn’t have the bureaucratic juice to fire him. (Jones declined to comment for this story.) But if White House aides couldn’t fire Holbrooke, they could muzzle him. Denis McDonough, an early foreign-policy adviser to Senator Obama and director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, kept him off television and, after a profile in The New Yorker that the White House found egocentric, away from print reporters. (Holbrooke met with them quietly on background anyway.) By trying so hard to control him, Obama lost a powerful public advocate for his policy.

The president could have clarified Holbrooke’s role, but he never did. So symbolism became important. The fact that Obama was at State for Holbrooke’s appointment in January 2009 was read as an important sign of presidential support. But the symbolism was noted too when Holbrooke was not in the audience for Obama’s big Afghanistan speech at West Point in December 2009, or part of Obama’s entourage on two brief trips to Afghanistan in 2010, or in Lisbon last November for a NATO summit.

Holbrooke, sometimes discouraged but never deterred, kept building his portfolio in whatever bureaucratic space he could find. He organized his own interagency task force and an intergovernmental contact group that came to include “special representatives” from more than 40 countries, including several Muslim nations. “The big contribution that he made to the overall effort was generating international support,” says the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. “He had an unequaled Rolodex in terms of not just passing acquaintances but people with whom he had worked over time.” (Petraeus liked to call Holbrooke his “wingman,” and Holbrooke joked about the description. “Since when did the diplomat become the general’s wingman? It’s supposed to be the other way around!”) Holbrooke kept trying to expand his brief to include not only Afghanistan and Pakistan but their relations with India and China. On the South Asian chessboard, that makes perfect sense, but in the bureaucratic politics of turf-obsessed Washington it was viewed as shameless empire-building.

Of course, Holbrooke knew what he was getting into when he took on what he called the “daunting” AfPak assignment. While out of government, as head of the Asia Society, he had closely studied Afghanistan. “He asked himself, ‘What was the most important conflict involving the United States where I can make a difference?’?” remembers Peter Galbraith, who had worked with him in the Balkans. But “there wasn’t the anger and egotism and ambitiousness that had marked everything that went before,” says a senior American diplomat who had clashed with Holbrooke in the 1990s. “He kind of knew this was his last job.”

“I would hear him talking on the phone with people who were working overtime to undermine him,” says Marton. “And I would say, ‘Wow! You sound like you’re talking to your best friend.’ And Richard would say, ‘Kati, I have to work with these people. It’s the only way to get things done.’?

“All the layers he was up against—he knew exactly who was making snide remarks,” says Marton, “and yet he just kept on going, even as his friends kept telling him, ‘These people don’t appreciate you.’?”

For many in the White House, Holbrooke’s long list of accomplishments was irrelevant ancient history, particularly his service during the war in Vietnam, where he became a rising diplomatic star. Obama himself was only 13 when Saigon fell in the spring of 1975, and he often showed his impatience with what he considered too-facile analogies between Vietnam and present-day conflicts. He complained often about those who were always “re-litigating the ’60s.” But that wasn’t the point—at least, not Holbrooke’s point. “So what if they rolled their eyes when he started talking about history?” says Marton. “He didn’t want to give lectures on Vietnam but to focus on one key point coming out of that war—that the military shouldn’t be calling the shots.”

Similarly, Holbrooke’s greatest diplomatic triumph, the Bosnia peace agreement, taught him many lessons, but when he tried to share them with those who weren’t there, or didn’t remember, or hadn’t even read his compelling book, To End a War, some tended to dismiss him as a blowhard. “I know I’m difficult,” Holbrooke complained to friends after his visits to the Obama White House, “but people there before at least had respect for what I have to say.”

What’s striking is how little substantive difference there was between what Holbrooke was trying to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what Obama wanted done. Both believed in the primacy of politics and diplomacy over military solutions. Both wanted to find exits without scrambling for them. “I tell you something,” says Gelb, “Dick was very supportive of Obama despite all the rejection.”

Yet there was an important difference in personal styles. Emotional theater can be useful in diplomacy, and Holbrooke was a master of it. The president disdained theatrics as much as Holbrooke disdained the White House’s “hyperrational approach”: make a good argument, well supported by facts, and expect other leaders to listen. But every leader has his or her own prism, and very often his or her own facts, so debating points may count for very little. Personality, on the other hand, can count for a lot.

Of course, Jones and the others in the administration who wanted to be rid of the special representative were quick to pick up on Obama’s diffidence and unwillingness to give him face time. They were looking for the misstep that would trip up Holbrooke for good. And the immediate aftermath of the August 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan looked like just the moment.

by that summer of obama’s first year in office, the Afghanistan debate essentially boiled down to questions about troop numbers (more or less?) and how best to handle Karzai. President Bush had sung Karzai’s praises for most of the decade; he granted Karzai monthly meetings on secure video-conference calls, which the Afghan president used mostly for complaints or useless happy talk. Obama canceled the face time and backed away from a regime so corrupt it was driving people into the arms of a resurgent Taliban. The whole administration was concerned that Karzai seemed crazy: a “paranoid and weak individual,” as U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote from Kabul a few weeks before the Afghan presidential election. But as tension mounted, the word in the White House was that “Richard was burning bridges in the region, and that was a problem,” says a senior White House aide. “Karzai felt Holbrooke was actively working against him.”

In fact, Holbrooke’s voice was just one of many in the president’s cacophonous councils, and not always a welcome one. Mark Sidwell, formerly Britain’s ambassador in Kabul and now NATO’s senior civilian representative there, observes that “Richard’s diplomacy definitely wasn’t about being diplomatic. It was about delivering. He basically had the guts to be tough and bang heads together if you needed to.”

At a lunch the day after the massively fraudulent 2009 election, Karzai replied furiously to suggestions he would have to face a runoff. Holbrooke responded in kind. “There was high emotion in that room,” says one Western diplomat. “It was a moment when people were on edge…and it ended with a great amount of tension.”

Soon afterward, Jones told Holbrooke it was time to go. Instead, the timing worked in Holbrooke’s favor: ironically, the very “No-Drama Obama” style that he chafed against saved his job. The administration’s deliberations stretched on messily. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander on the ground, pushed for more troops. Eikenberry (a retired general and former U.S. commander in Afghanistan) argued that a surge would only make things worse. Details of the debate were front-page news. The last thing Obama wanted at that moment was the dramatic disruption that would be caused by firing the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But his rivals, thinking Holbrooke’s days were numbered, piled on the pressure.

Stories multiplied about Holbrooke’s supposedly cringeworthy behavior. Some were exaggerated or even invented. At a breakfast with Pakistani politicians in January 2010, for instance, local papers claimed Holbrooke “flew into a rage” about criticism of the United States, which was about to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. But two of the Pakistani politicians who were at that breakfast in Islamabad’s opulent Serena Hotel have told NEWSWEEK that there was no rage, no shouting, nothing of the kind.

By this time Karzai was cleverly making a show of warming up toward Al Qaeda, which sent the Americans jostling to curry favor with him again. This didn’t play to Holbrooke’s strengths. In February 2010, in what was supposed to be a personal note, Jones reportedly told Ambassador Eikenberry in Kabul not to worry too much about Holbrooke because he wasn’t going to be around much longer. The contents of the note wound up circulating all over Foggy Bottom. “Even though Dick knew how Jones felt, that note, and its being distributed all over the department, was just devastating,” remembers one of Holbrooke’s close friends. The following month, Holbrooke was left out of Obama’s entourage on the president’s quick visit to Kabul. “Some of this is just sheer personality,” says an official who was on the trip. “Who do you want as your traveling companion? It’s a small group. You’re starting to run out of seats at the table. Then the music stops.” But few reporters failed to note the slight.

Then, in April, the Jones letter leaked to the press—and the effect wasn’t what might have been expected. As Holbrooke kept working, organizing, traveling, and building vital bridges in Pakistan, it was Jones who looked disruptive. In November, a frustrated Obama decided to change his national-security adviser. In early December, on a visit to the White House, Holbrooke couldn’t resist telling one of the president’s aides, “You’ll notice that I am still here and Jones isn’t.”

As the war ground on, Holbrooke’s role—one of his close associates called it “choreography”—was to try and position all the players to move toward reconciliation, so that, for instance, if major elements of the Taliban decided they wanted to cut a deal with Kabul, Pakistani hardliners wouldn’t step in to block it. At the same time, as one of his European counterparts put it, Holbrooke had to convince all parties that talk of “reconciliation” with the Taliban and “transition” to the Afghan military was not “American code for a scramble for the exits.”

Richard Holbrooke, always famous for persistence, had learned the lessons of patience. If his relations with Karzai remained cool, he still met with him formally and frequently. In Pakistan, when enormous floods devastated the country last summer, Holbrooke “was like a force of nature battling the water,” as his friend Galbraith puts it. The United States took the lead in delivering relief and, for a change, got some credit from the Pakistani public. Last fall, Islamabad and Kabul signed an unprecedented transit and trade agreement, which was one of Holbrooke’s key goals. “We are quite sad on his sudden death,” says Haji Adeel, a prominent Pashtun member of Pakistan’s Parliament. “He didn’t complete his mission.”

Perhaps not. But when the music stopped, Richard Holbrooke was still at the table.

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