A true giant of foreign policy who made America stronger and safer: Obama

Richard Holbrooke (69), President Barack Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died on Monday evening here at George Washington University Hospital after undergoing two surgical procedures aimed at repairing a tear in his aorta.

Expressing grief at his passing Mr. Obama said, “Michelle and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Richard Holbrooke, a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected.” Along with Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended her condolences to Mr. Holbrooke’s wife, Kati Marton and his family, describing him as a “true statesman.”

Other senior administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Susan Rice, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, issued statements of condolence too. Sympathy also poured in from the region of Mr. Holbrooke’s work, with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari calling Ms. Marton to express condolences. In particular Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi recalled that Mr. Holbrooke “played an important role in upgrading the Pakistan-U.S. Strategic Dialogue to the Ministerial level and expanding the scope of Pakistan-U.S. relations.”

Mr. Holbrooke’s career both began and ended in the service of American diplomacy trapped within the perimeter of unrelenting wars of occupation. As a young Foreign Service officer he was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Vietnam in 1962, where he served for six years and made important policy contributions for economic development and local political reform. In this posting he was most remembered, however, for lending his expertise to the Paris peace talks of 1968, which ultimately helped end the war.

Twenty-four years later – following successful stints as the Director of the U.S. Peace Corps in Morocco (1970-72), as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and as U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1993-94) – Mr. Holbrooke again found himself shaping the course of historically significant events.

In 1994, when Mr. Holbrooke took on the mantle of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, he headed the negotiation team that was responsible for resolving the Balkan crisis. For the seminal role he played as chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, in 1996 Mr. Holbrooke was awarded the Manfred Wörner Medal by the German Ministry of Defence for public figures rendering “special meritorious service to peace and freedom in Europe.”

Touted as a potential future candidate for the position of Secretary of State, Mr. Holbrooke was however sometimes caught out making gaffes including a statement he made earlier this year underplaying the fact that Indians had been targeted and killed in an attack in Kabul. The coordinated suicide attack of February 26 killed nine Indians in a building regularly used by Indian embassy and by Indians engaged in development work in Afghanistan.

Speaking to The Hindu, Teresita Schaffer, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and a South Asia specialist who knew Mr. Holbrooke well said he was “extraordinarily gifted, insisted on control over all aspects of the foreign policy machinery, [was] a bureaucratic bulldozer, [and] alternately charming and abrasive.” Mr. Holbrooke was in fact nicknamed “the bulldozer,” and was quoted in media as saying that he had no qualms about “negotiating with people who do immoral things,” if it served efforts for peace.

Touching on his most recent role, Ms. Schaffer however said that Mr. Holbrooke recognised that Afghanistan was a tougher assignment, “in part because there were so many players, you couldn't put [the parties involved] in a room and force a solution.” This view was also corroborated by Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation think tank and a South Asia specialist who has served with the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

Ms. Curtis said to The Hindu that even Mr. Holbrooke, who brought to bear some of the best diplomatic and negotiating skills that existed in the U.S. government, “was unable to get Pakistan on board to deal with Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.” She added that along with the challenge of securing Pakistani cooperation, the biggest task facing any successor to Mr. Holbrooke would be to “figure out how to work in coordination with the [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai government rather than at cross-purposes.”

On the vacuum left by Mr. Holbrooke’s death, Ms. Schaffer noted that “Whoever succeeds him will probably not have the same larger-than-life quality, and won’t be able to control how funds get allocated, to micromanage what people get assigned to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in short to dominate U.S. civilian tools being used in those countries.”

Ms. Curtis said it would be important, at the very least, to appoint a successor who had significant regional experience, and potential candidates could include Frank Ruggiero, Mr. Holbrooke’s deputy, Richard Armitage, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Haass, former U.S. coordinator for policy toward the future of Afghanistan, or Bruce Riedel, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Near East and South Asian Affairs.

The question of successors notwithstanding, the Obama administration has clearly lost a powerful personality who championed its cause, something that President Obama doubtless recognised when he quoted a mutual friend as saying, “If you’re not on the team and you’re in his way, God help you.”

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