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Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic memoir

December 13, 2010 |  6:30 pm


Longtime diplomat Richard Holbrooke died Monday in Washington; he had been serving as President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Holbrooke was the author of "To End A War," his memoir of the negotiations that brought the Bosnian conflict to an end, published by Random House in 1998. In our pages, reviewer Noel Malcolm wrote:

Though Holbrooke was presented in the media as a sort of diplomatic Lone Ranger, one of the constant themes of this book is the teamwork on which he always depended. The point is made in a dramatic and tragic way in his opening chapter, in which he describes how three of his closest colleagues lost their lives when their armored vehicle rolled off a mountain track on the outskirts of Sarajevo. Thereafter, throughout the book, the loss of these three men is never far from Holbrooke's thoughts; during the final weeks of negotiation at Dayton he even arranged a meeting between their widows and children and the assembled Balkan presidents (of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia). He did this not to put pressure on those three politicians but to give the bereaved relatives a sense of the historic importance of what their husbands and fathers had died for. This is one of several genuinely moving moments in "To End a War."

Teamwork mattered to Holbrooke for political reasons as well as for human ones. Although he may have appeared to the world as Clinton's trouble-shooter plenipotentiary, that was certainly not how it worked in practice. He had never been part of Clinton's inner circle and depended on the support of some of the real insiders (such as National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, whose close friendship with Holbrooke goes back more than 30 years). Ranged against him were various unnamed individuals in the State Department, whom he describes here as the "many officials who made deviousness, even with close colleagues, a way of life," and almost everyone in the Pentagon, where the Colin Powell doctrine--no intervention anywhere, unless it is so massively disproportionate as to become virtually risk-free--ruled supreme.

Political "friendly fire" rained down on Holbrooke not only from Washington but also from many of the capitals of Europe. Much of the interest of this book, for historians and students of international relations, will lie in what it reveals about the systematic incompetence, pettiness and self-obsession of the Western European powers and their consequent resentment toward any measures taken by the United States. Nor is this revelation a case of Holbrooke getting his own back in print; his criticisms are delicately phrased, and anyone who was observing the European politicians' antics at the time will know that he is rendering visible only the tip of a massive and hugely frigid iceberg.

In addition to his memoir, Holbrooke co-authored "Counsel to the President" with Clark Clifford, who worked with Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. Holbrooke also revealed that he wrote a volume of the once-secret Pentagon Papers, a detailed accounting of the Vietnam War. 

The 69-year-old Holbrooke had checked into a Washington-area hospital Friday and undergone surgery for a torn aorta.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Richard Holbrooke in September 2010. Credit: Brendan McDermid / Reuters