The Duck of Minerva

Richard Holbrooke

14 December 2010

I am sure there will be many views and probably a few forthcoming books on the life of Richard Holbrooke. To be sure, he was a tough and skilled diplomat. It is well known that at times, he was arrogant, self-absorbed, self-promoting, and occasionally petty. And at other times, he was engaging, generous, and charming. He was always smart and hard working.

I first met him shortly after his first visit to the Bosnian war in 1992. He went to Sarajevo as a private citizen to deliver humanitarian relief and with the intent to snap the international community into action. He was deeply affected by the seige of Sarajevo and the slaughter of civilians and was visibly angry that more wasn’t being done to stop it. When I resigned from my position as a Bosnia analyst at the State Department in August 1993, he contacted me with kind words of support and reiterated his own frustrations with the US and international efforts to control the violence (at that point he was the U.S. Ambassador to Germany).

The final book on Holbrooke’s efforts on Bosnia has yet to be written. His memoir, To End A War is a flawed and often self-serving account. Many other insiders hold a very different account of the Clinton administration’s endgame on Bosnia. I tend to concur with the later and I suspect that as the archives open in the coming decades, there will be some less than flattering accounts of Holbrooke’s behavior during the run-up to Dayton.

Nonetheless, for all his faults, throughout the war in Bosnia and throughout the negotiations at Dayton, Holbrooke was driven by his genuine conviction that something had to be done to end the slaughter of civilians. In this regard, Holbrooke was a special kind of diplomat — not necessarily because he held such convictions (there were many who shared such views), but because he wasn’t afraid to express them, defend them, and ultimately, use them as part of diplomacy.