Azeem Ibrahim on Richard Holbrooke

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Azeem Ibrahim on Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke, who died last week aged 69, had an incredible career behind him, and most of his friends thought he was not done yet.

The roll call of prestigious positions he held is testament to his extraordinary talent for foreign policy: joining the Foreign Service after failing to be hired by the New York Times, he became a civilian representative of the Agency for International Development working in the Mekong Delta. He was then staff assistant in Saigon’s US Embassy, and then Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Council, which he joined at the tender age of twenty-four. Positions as special assistant to the State Department’s Number Two and on the delegation to the 1968 Paris Peace Talks followed, and then authorship of a volume of the Pentagon Papers. He then asked to be made director of the Peace Corps in Morocco, after which he edited the then-nascent journal ‘Foreign Policy’.

He prepped candidate Jimmy Carter for his foreign policy debates, became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met Indonesia’s President Suharto to press for better human rights in Indonesia, advised both Clinton and Gore, and was appointed Ambassador to Germany. But the achievement for which he is best remembered lay ahead of him. The Dayton Accords which ended the horrifying events in the Balkans in the early nineties were an achievement which bore his imprint almost singlehandedly.

Agreed and signed in winter 1995, the agreements ended a war which had been going on for three and a half years, and on which the European countries had failed to act. Holbrooke stepped in, persuaded Clinton that action was needed, put in the work, and got the deal. Later, as special Presidential Envoy to the region, he would give Slobodan Milosevic the final ultimatum before the NATO bombs began to fall on Serbia.

He went on to become the US’ Ambassador to the UN, and President Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a task with a perhaps eerie resemblance to the Vietnam War where his career began.

But he was a thinker as well as a doer. Even before the 2008 election he wrote a lengthy foreign policy roundup in Foreign Affairs which covered all bases and advised the next president in clear, muscular prose.

Personally, many wondered how such a successful diplomat could be so undiplomatic. Those who crossed him knew that he could be fiery and tough. But those who knew him found that he was an incredible person to have on your side. ‘He really looked after you’, and ‘he really helped you to develop your skills and yourself as a diplomat’ are two sentiments which are widely expressed by those who worked under him.

His death will be a blow to the Obama administration. An envoy is not a job into which you can rotate pretty much anyone. It requires painstaking and diligent work building up and cultivating the power players in the region, and that takes time and has to be done right.

Even if he sometimes offended, Richard Holbrooke did that work, and it will take time for anyone who steps into his shoes to do it again for themselves. It is hoped that whoever succeeds him understands that lesson as well as he did.

There was talk of the possibility of his becoming the next Secretary of State. We will never know how things might have been different had that happened, and it will always remain a history of an alternative Obama Presidency which will never be written. But in his time in the diplomatic saddle and at the centre of the US foreign policy and diplomatic milieu for three decades, he had already made an incredible impact.

Will his death change the Obama administration’s policy in the region? No, as it was very much the President’s policy in the first place. Holbrooke himself would have done things rather differently, as his sceptical dispatch about Hamid Karzai in the run-up to the policy review proved.

But will it change the execution of the policy? Yes, and most likely in two main ways. Firstly, his replacement is likely to get on better with the Afghan leader, who Holbrooke mistrusted and called erratic, and who even refused to meet the diplomat on occasion.

But secondly, the job is unlikely to be taken on by anyone with more experience or street smarts than Holbrooke. His address book was full of every major player in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, decades worth of diplomacy had given him the benefit of numerous words of advice from various leaders and diplomats around the world and on the ground experience, and, a rarer quality still, he could and did draw on an encyclopaedic knowledge of history and cite historical paralells and precedents for many of the thorniest problems he encountered throughout his career.

His death does not endanger the administration’s policy, but the difficulty of finding someone else who will be able to pursue it with the same energy, drive and intelligence is an eloquent testament to his abilities.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.


This article was published by Islamic Monthly on January 25, 2011. 

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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