Richard Holbrooke: A Consummate Insider Who Left Us Wanting More

In explaining his approach to diplomacy, Richard Holbrooke used a different analogy from the one Henry Kissinger liked.

"Henry likes to say that diplomacy is like chess," he told me once over after-dinner cognac. "I see it differently. Diplomacy is like jazz: endless variations on a theme."

That was the essence of this supercharged and ultimately frustrated statesman. He understood the mechanics of power and was a consummate inside player. His explosive energy was balanced by a creative instinct and a gift for reading people that contributed to his greatest successes. In the end, though, like Kissinger, he was a faithful courtier, product of an age when the arc of American power seemed to curve ever upward. Eager to climb up the slippery pole in Washington, he embraced the paradigm of American power, exceptionalism, and global reach.

Holbrooke's early service in Vietnam might have turned him into a doubter like Daniel Ellsberg, David Halberstam, or General John Paul Vann. That, however, would have pushed him off the career track that he fervently hoped would lead him to the job he always coveted, Secretary of State. Moved by some combination of ambition and conviction, he chose a career in diplomacy, which of necessity requires embracing the foreign policy principles of the state one serves.

As a senior State Department official in 1976, Holbrooke authorized secret arms shipments to the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, violating a proclaimed embargo, so Suharto could intensify his repressive campaign against rebels in East Timor. His boss, President Jimmy Carter, like President Gerald Ford before him, considered Suharto a key ally. "We highly value our cooperative relationship with Indonesia," Holbrooke explained afterward.

By this point in his career, Holbrooke had already become one of the Democratic Party's most prominent diplomats. Keeping a foreign policy career going in Washington, however, has traditionally required sitting squarely in the political center. One must accept certain assumptions: the world is a dangerous place full of threats; it needs to be managed; and the United States must do the managing.

So it was that in the closing days of the 2000 presidential campaign, when he was advising Al Gore, Holbrooke turned up at an event hosted by Republican hero Paul Wolfowitz, later famous as one of the chief promoters of the Iraq invasion. Wolfowitz's career, Holbrooke said, "illustrates something that's very important about American foreign policy in an election year, and that is the degree to which there are still common themes between the parties."

To some newspaper readers, Holbrooke and Wolfowitz might have seemed natural opposites. One was a quintessential Democrat, well schooled in the rhetoric of human rights, while the other was a Republican warmonger, always looking abroad for monsters to destroy. In fact, however, both men devoted their careers to promoting the militarist/interventionist paradigm that defines bipartisan consensus in Washington's foreign-policy circles.

Though he was famously short-tempered, Holbrooke had a soft spot for journalists, largely because he hoped we would polish his legend but also because he felt he was one of us and enjoyed our company. No experience prepared me for being the New York Times bureau chief in Germany when Holbrooke arrived as ambassador in 1993. He called regularly. Often he had an invitation: come to dinner with Jack Valenti, help me guide I. M. Pei around Berlin. Other times it was report his latest exploits; once he publicly threatened to move the site of the planned American embassy because city officials were trying to influence its design, and then, when the Mayor called him to demand an explanation, he replied: "This is poker."

Holbrooke had sought to become ambassador to Japan, and seemed likely to get the job until someone with even stronger political credentials, Walter Mondale, decided he'd take it. The post in Germany was a consolation prize, which he accepted after being advised that it might lead to something bigger. He did his best to make that happen. Each day he'd awaken in Germany, tend to his ambassador's work until late afternoon, and then, as people in Washington began arriving at their desks, begin his round of networking calls to friends, allies, and possible promoters there.

Sure enough, Holbrooke won promotion to a new job, assistant secretary of state for European affairs. It was in that post that he won his best-publicized victory, the Dayton accord that ended fighting in Bosnia. Once I mentioned to him that his success at Dayton must have been largely due to the bombing campaign against Serbia that preceded it, but he told me otherwise. Knowing that President Slobodan Milosevic was a heavy drinker, he made sure Milosevic's suite was always well stocked with Johnnie Walker. He and Johnnie, he confided, were the combination that sealed the Dayton accord. It was the only time I ever heard him share credit for anything.

The closest Holbrooke came to his dream job was after Bill Clinton's election in 1996. He might have had it, but a group of female Democrats, acting with Hillary Clinton's blessing, demanded that the President-elect name a woman. They were successful, and Madeline Albright -- lower-key but considerably less talented -- became Secretary of State.

Rather than hold a grudge, Holbrooke dutifully endorsed Mrs. Clinton when she ran against Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primaries. He had calculated that she would make him Secretary of State, and may have been right. But the election didn't turn out as he had anticipated, and his bet went bad.

Unable to remain on the sidelines, Holbrooke accepted a job as President Obama's coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a bad fit. He feuded angrily with President Hamid Karzai, and although he demanded total control over civilian projects in Afghanistan, he was never able to control the Washington policy process. His voice was one among many -- not a circumstance he enjoyed.

Holbrooke should have resisted the temptation to take that last job. Far better would have been to devote himself to thinking and writing, for which he had shown remarkable talent. He ghost-wrote Clark Clifford's elegant memoir, Counsel To the President, and his own book about Bosnia, To End a War, was as lyrical as it was insightful. His intellect was formidable, and over the course of his career he developed a noticeably moral sensibility. Through it all, he remained faithful to the principles of American foreign policy.

Now that many of these principles seem so outdated and even dangerous, might Holbrooke have used his lifetime of experience to suggest a different way? If he had resisted the temptation to return to active diplomacy in what was for him a mid-level job, could he have used his remaining time to rethink America's role in the world?

Near the end of George Kennan's life, one of his friends wrote him a letter urging him to "separate yourself from the killing vanity" and write "a book where you could freely express yourself; your philosophy of history; your view of your own fellow Americans; and your love to them all." Kennan never wrote that book. Neither did Holbrooke. Both were among their country's most extraordinary modern diplomats. Would that they had searched their souls more deeply at the end, so that we might have learned more from them.