Obituary: Richard C. Holbrooke / Statesman for Democratic presidents since '60s; forged Bosnia peace
Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2009 and a diplomatic troubleshooter in Asia, Europe and the Middle East who worked for every Democratic president since the late 1960s, died Monday evening in Washington, D.C. He was 69 and lived in New York City.
His death was confirmed by an Obama administration official.
Mr. Holbrooke was hospitalized Friday afternoon after becoming ill while meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in her Washington office. Doctors found a tear to his aorta, and he underwent a 21-hour operation. Mr. Holbrooke had additional surgery Sunday and had remained in very critical condition until his death.
Mr. Holbrooke's signal accomplishment was his role as the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which ended the war in Bosnia. It was a diplomatic coup preceded and followed by his peacekeeping missions to the tinderbox of ethnic, religious and regional conflicts that was formerly Yugoslavia.
More recently, Mr. Holbrooke wrestled with the stunning complexity of Afghanistan and Pakistan: how to bring stability to the region while fighting a resurgent Taliban and coping with corrupt governments, rigged elections, fragile economies, a rampant narcotics trade, nuclear weapons in Pakistan and the presence of al-Qaida, and presumably Osama bin Laden, in the tribal borderlands.
His tenure in the Obama administration had mixed reviews. President Barack Obama sent in more troops to Afghanistan, as Mr. Holbrooke had wanted, but there was little military or civic progress. Mr. Holbrooke's relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was icy.
A brilliant, sometimes abrasive infighter with a formidable arsenal of facts, bluffs, whispers, implied threats and, when necessary, fits of anger, Mr. Holbrooke dazzled and often intimidated opponents and colleagues around a negotiating table. Some called him a bully, and he looked the part: the big chin thrust out, the broad shoulders, the tight smile that might mean anything.
But admirers, including generations of State Department proteges and the presidents he served, called his peacemaking efforts extraordinary.
When he named Mr. Holbrooke to represent the United States at the United Nations, President Bill Clinton said, "His remarkable diplomacy in Bosnia helped to stop the bloodshed, and at the talks in Dayton the force of his determination was the key to securing peace, restoring hope and saving lives." Others said his work in Bosnia deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
Few diplomats could boast of his accomplishments. Early on, Mr. Holbrooke devoted six years to the Vietnam War: first in the Mekong Delta with the Agency for International Development, seeking the allegiance of the civilian population, then at the embassy in Saigon as an aide to Ambassadors Maxwell Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and finally in the U.S. delegation to the 1968-69 Paris peace talks.
Mr. Holbrooke was the author of one volume of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War that catalogued years of U.S. duplicity in Southeast Asia. The papers were first brought to public attention by The New York Times in 1971.
As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Carter administration, Mr. Holbrooke played a crucial role in establishing full diplomatic relations with China in 1979.
During the Clinton presidency, Mr. Holbrooke served as ambassador to Germany in 1993-94, when he helped enlarge the North Atlantic alliance; achieved his diplomatic breakthroughs in Bosnia as assistant secretary of state for European affairs in 1994-95; and was chief representative to the United Nations, a Cabinet post, for 17 months from 1999 to 2001.
Foreign policy was his life. Even during Republican administrations, when he was not in government, he was deeply engaged, undertaking missions as a private citizen traveling through the war-weary Balkans and the backwaters of Africa and Asia to see firsthand the damage and devastating human costs of genocide, civil wars and HIV and AIDS epidemics.
And his voice on the outside remained influential -- as the editor of Foreign Policy magazine from 1972 to 1977, as a writer of columns for The Washington Post and analytical articles for many other publications, and as the author of two books. He collaborated with Clark Clifford, a presidential adviser, on a best-selling Clifford memoir, "Counsel to the President" (1991), and wrote his own acclaimed memoir, "To End a War" (1998), about his Bosnia service.
Mr. Holbrooke also made millions as an investment banker on Wall Street.
Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was born in New York City on April 24, 1941.
At Brown University, he majored in history and was editor of the student newspaper. He intended to become a journalist, but after graduating in 1962 he joined the State Department.
First Published December 14, 2010 12:00 am