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December 18, 2011 7:19 pm
The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World, Edited by Derek Chollet and Samantha Power, PublicAffairs, RRP£19.99, 400 pages
Richard Holbrooke was one of the most effective American diplomats of the postwar era. Built like a bull elephant, he possessed a towering intellect and a teasing charm. Wherever he strode he left an indelible mark on people and places around the world.
On the first anniversary of his untimely death at the age of 69, friends and colleagues have produced a tribute to the man they have dubbed The Unquiet American. The book, which also contains Holbrooke’s own writings and speeches, is a must-read for anyone interested in public service and US foreign policy.
Holbrooke is best known as the architect of the Dayton accords, which brought a tenuous peace to the Balkans. This book is a reminder of how much more he accomplished in his 45-year diplomatic career. From his early days as a foreign service officer in Vietnam to his ambassadorships in Germany and the UN and finally as special envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he epitomised Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena.
At the age of 27, he was authoring a volume of the Pentagon papers. He played a key role in the normalisation of relations with China. Thousands of Vietnamese boat people owe their rescue and resettlement in the US to his insistence they not be left to drown in the South China Sea. He bullied and flattered Congress into paying $1bn of US arrears to the UN. He launched the American Academy in Berlin. And he was a galvanising figure in the global struggle against Aids. (The notable gap in the book is a comment on his parallel Wall Street career where he worked as an investment banker-at-large and director at AIG.)
Holbrooke was a voracious reader, a relentless self-promoter and a master of the put-down aimed at stopping journalists and subordinates in their tracks. (“I have no idea what that means.”) His abrasive style made him enemies and probably cost him the job that he secretly most coveted: US secretary of state. But in the words of his widow, the author Kati Marton, many of his famous explosions were staged to achieve a defined end.
In 1999, on the eve of the Nato bombing campaign that would topple him from power, Slobodan Milosevic appealed to Holbrooke: “Don’t you have anything more to say to me?” Roger Cohen, The New York Times columnist, recounts Holbrooke’s deadpan response to the Serbian strongman: “Hasta la vista, baby.”
The deployment of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hollywood vernacular is quintessential Holbrooke. He was the showman-statesman. Whatever his irrepressible, occasionally thuggish manner (and his three cell phones), he was also a man of principle unafraid of taking unpopular positions. He was guided by an overarching philosophy of America’s responsibilities as a superpower.
Holbrooke’s unabashed patriotism owes much to his roots – his father was a Russian émigré physician, his mother a refugee from Germany via Argentina. He recognised the tensions between the value-based Wilsonian foreign policy and the Realpolitik of a Henry Kissinger. He dismissed Woodrow Wilson as a naive failure, but he also regarded Realpolitik as self-defeating in his cynicism. “We cannot choose between the two – we have to blend the two.”
Holbrooke believed, passionately, that the US could be a force for good. But the deployment of military power was a means to an end, as shown by Nato’s bombing to bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. He remained highly critical of the Bush administration’s hubristic ambitions to turn the Middle East and Afghanistan into a garden of democracy.
Holbrooke loved the company of journalists and readily swapped gossip and insights, even if it was sometimes one-way traffic. As I discovered, he could be a mentor and tormentor, to borrow his protégée Samantha Power’s phrase. This book shows he was a fine writer in his own right. In a Time magazine column headlined “Much too tough to be cute”, he captures Deng Xiaoping: “His small eyes focused on you with intensity. Then he would look away, far away, perhaps at some distant vision of the China he wanted to build or possibly at the memory of some past indignity he had survived on his rollercoaster ride between history and oblivion.”
Always happiest when in the field, Holbrooke detested bureaucracy. He focused relentlessly on practical outcomes. It was typical of the man that he accepted the job of Afpak envoy under President Barack Obama when many would have rejected the task as impossible. There he made some missteps, especially dealing with the wily Afghan president Hamid Karzai. In the end, the strain may have contributed to the torn aorta that killed him. But the record will show that he was a giant in his own lifetime. He saved lives, and he made a difference.
The writer is editor of the Financial Times
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