'Raging Bull of US diplomacy' will be remembered for his crucial role in ending genocidal Bosnian war
Published 19/12/2010 | 05:00
Richard Holbrooke, who died on December 13 aged 69, brought the brashness and relentless work ethic of Wall Street, where he made a second career, to the rarefied reaches of international diplomacy; while it did not always win him friends, his tough-talking style secured a peace agreement that ended the genocidal war in Bosnia.
The 'Raging Bull of US diplomacy' was less successful in the job that he held at the time of his death -- US President Barack Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan -- falling out with politicians at home and soldiers on the ground. But few doubted his commitment to securing negotiated settlements to apparently intractable conflicts, or his ability to deliver where others had failed.
"I'm not always sure what you are doing, or why," Secretary of State Warren Christopher once confessed to Holbrooke. "But you always seem to have a reason, and it seems to work."
Above all, it worked in Bosnia. Peace in that shattered Balkan land seemed impossible when Holbrooke arrived in 1995. Less than a month after Srebrenica, US President Bill Clinton sent in Holbrooke and a small team of negotiators to try to end the bloodshed. Their job of reconciling bitter enemies -- Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; Franjo Tudjman in Croatia; Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia -- seemed daunting at best.
Typically, however, Holbrooke proceeded to combine hard-nosed charm with strong-arm strategic gambits in his face-to-face meetings.
Despite the loss of three of his team in an armoured-car crash, Holbrooke's tactics bore their first fruit just a month after his arrival. On September 14, 1995, Milosevic -- along with the leaders of the ethnic-Serb faction in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic-- agreed to lift the siege of Sarajevo as long as his troops were spared further air strikes. While alleviating the most pressing dangers, Holbrooke simul- taneously put in place the structure for a long-term solution to the fighting, by securing agreement to a division of Bosnia along ethnic lines.
In October, two months after his arrival, he cajoled all parties to agree to a ceasefire. On November 1, at an American airbase outside Dayton, Ohio, Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic began work that led, three weeks later, to a comprehensive agreement on the future of Bosnia.
Reflecting on the achievement a month later, Time magazine commented: "Holbrooke relentlessly bullied his interlocutors toward the negotiating table. The reason everyone quit fighting, it was joked, was that this was 'the only way to get Holbrooke to go home'."
Indeed, while Holbrooke had established a jousting rapport with Milosevic, his pyrotechnics had not gone down so well in Washington. During his time in Bosnia, Holbrooke was variously described by unnamed colleagues in the American press as abrasive, vain, egomaniacal, domineering, manipulative, narcissistic, nakedly ambitious and "semi-socialised".
Richard Charles Holbrooke was born in Manhattan on April 24, 1941, the son of Jewish immigrants from central Europe. At Brown University, Holbrooke initially studied maths and physics. After switching to history, he graduated in 1962 and joined the State Department, which sent him to Vietnam.
Holbrooke stayed in the Mekong Delta for three years before returning to America to join the team advising Lyndon Johnson on the region. Two years later, he gained his first experience of the robust and pugnacious attitude sometimes required to secure peace deals when he joined the American delegation in Paris that was negotiating an end to the war in Vietnam.
He then left the State Department to take up a 12-month sabbatical at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton where he was a fellow, before rejoining government as the director of the Peace Corps in Morocco. In 1972, with his tour in Morocco nearly up, he agreed to edit the magazine Foreign Policy following the untimely death of its first editor.
He was summoned back to government by Bill Clinton, but not as secretary of state, as he had perhaps hoped. Instead Clinton named Holbrooke ambassador to Germany in 1993, where he remained until September 1994.
His appointment as chief negotiator in Bosnia the following year was an indication of the administration's desperation for a breakthrough.
Richard Holbrooke, a physically imposing man, was reported to have collapsed while in discussions with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington last Friday. Surgeons performed a 20-hour procedure to repair a tear in his aorta. Subsequent surgery was required, but proved unsuccessful.
He was married three times, and is survived by his wife Kati Marton, as well as by two sons from his first marriage.