by Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
The early Greeks believed that the character of the hero revealed itself primarily in battle. To pierce the pious fog of sanctimonious adulation surrounding Richard Holbrooke’s unfortunate death, it is best to remember Richard had a fixed, innate pugnacity that sat at the root of his nature. The clash of mind against mind stirred and exalted his senses. Because of his superb arsenal of talents, his analytical intellect, the penetrating discernment, the delicacy of his feelings and his moral fearlessness, Holbrooke liked a fight because he believed he was very likely to win it. I think he always had a sense that his brain surpassed or at the very least, equaled those of the people he was confronting.
How do I know this? Because Holbrooke was a friend, not a close friend, but a promising man who in the 1980s was a visitor to our Connecticut Avenue condo just across from the Washington Hilton. Often our encounters were turbulent, but we always talked. When our careers took different paths, we lost contact for 20 years but we resumed in 2008 when Richard eagerly agreed to help me on my book, Clinton’s Secret Wars.
To begin with, Richard Holbrooke was not just “brilliant” or “feisty” or “the raging bull,” but a personality of enormous dimensions and complexity. If we place him next to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, for example, it is like measuring Flannery O’Connor against Tolstoy. Such comparisons only inflict an unkindness. There simply is no contest.
As some have alleged, Richard could be a bit of a bully although not in the common sense of the term. He liked to intimidate but he admired fiber and grit. Without resistance he felt bored. Our first meeting ended in a shouting match about Iran, I think, but in any initial discussion Richard moved to test your nettle, to overpower you, to crumple you up and toss you aside if he could.
Having lived with both Death Row prisoners and inner-city gang members I found that in initial contacts they made it clear they would just as soon kill you for pocket change as not. It used to get on my nerves, and I would break out in scornful abuse, declaring they could go to hell. The first night I was in Chicago with a 4,500-member Southside street gang, they told me they were going to kill me that night with a shot gun. Where was I staying? I told them my hotel and added I would leave the door unlocked. They showed up at 2:00 in the morning but they had sent a woman, not a hit man. Now comes the interesting part. What followed was a dramatic change of manner. It was now mixed with respect, even attempts at amiability because you had seen through the comic book, two-fisted horseshit act and shown you were not some credulous trifler to be scared off.
It was similar with Richard. When he found your resistance had no trace of retreat in it, and if you matched him fact for fact, argument for argument (as best you could), he would listen. He was never pleasant, sometimes even surly and rude but he was not dishonest. If a point struck him, he would acknowledge it, he took as well as gave, and after a vigorous struggle had failed to establish his precedence, you could both at last come to an agreement on the facts. You discovered then that the initial menacing aspect had only been a test of your perceptiveness, and by standing fast, you had earned his respect. If you saw him again at a party, he came and sought you out. I think he wanted his friends to have character and was in fact a man who behind the bluster very much wanted to be seen as having a gentle and caring heart.
His manner often reminded me of the Greeks. In early Greece it was said that the man of outstanding personality could display himself to his contemporaries without diffidence, even to the extent of flaunting superior powers or resorting to whole-hearted self-praise. This openness did not offend as long as it was not obnoxious and didn’t put too many listeners in the shade. However, Holbrooke seemed to think that that earlier age was still with us, and that it was natural law that he should dominate any group of which he was a part. With his impressive, deep voice, and an intense, presiding manner he felt that, by right, he should take the lead. Thus Richard was often blind to the requirements of the egos of the undiscerning. He had a naive boyishness that expected that his social success would please others as much as it pleased him. He badly misunderstood the ache in the heart that sharp words could cause.
His mind was a wonder. You approached Holbrooke through his intelligence, not his heart. His brain displayed an extraordinary lucidity directed at every idea or object it found within its scope. He had the memory of a Macaulay who it was said had memorized Paradise Lost and carried it and other bulky texts entire in his head. As Lincoln’s law partner, Herndon, observed, issues presented themselves to Lincoln through not his feelings but his brain or his principles. They came to Holbrooke in the same way, but there was a difference – while Lincoln was essentially a cold, not very excitable man, Holbrooke sat atop a volcano of the most eager and sensitive feelings. He cared for things deeply, and was incredibly thin-skinned to the point of being ruinously touchy. (One thinks of the great confederate general Joe Johnston, for example.)
Holbrooke was simply incapable of small talk. Ordinary cocktail chatter made him inwardly scream. But bring up any subject and you started up a host of jumping rabbits in Richard’s head. He had a genuine lust to understand things. Why had no one written a book on the role of the “great river” like the Nile in civilization? Or why had no one studied the impact of disease on Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia? Or was the key to Europe geographical, as some said, or was it racial, as others maintained? (He believed the latter.) Or why did so few see the fundamental contradiction between the rights of minorities and the right of self determination for small countries, an example of which was the war in Bosnia?
There were many others: Why had the Normans disappeared from history? Or what did you think of Macaulay’s style? He used to say World War I was not a “world war,” only the Great European War until America’s entry into the conflict in 1917, and he would complain that coalitions acted only to spread and extend wars. Before coalitions wars were short, decided by one battle, but with coalitions a war didn’t end until an entire country or countries had been destroyed. The defeat of a member of a coalition only meant its place would be taken by another member, thus dragging the war on and on, etc.
Richard had such self-confidence that, like Lincoln, no title, no acclaim, no pretension of any kind ever crossed the threshold of his mind until a careful scrutiny had been carried out. Authority to him meant nothing. As a young Foreign Service officer stationed in the Mekong Delta he hadn’t hesitated to contradict Gen. William Westmoreland, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. When Holbrooke offered a frank opinion on a matter, Westmoreland thought him a presumptuous upstart.”How old are you?” he challenged.
“Twenty-four,” replied Holbrooke.
“What makes you think you know so much?”
“I don’t know,” Holbrooke shot back, “but I’ve been here two years and spent all my time in the field.”
Richard had to see things for himself and he had the inner faith to believe in what he saw even if only he had seen it.
Energy of Character
What Holbrooke had, above all, was energy of character. The Greeks thought that energy of character and nobility of mind were rarely combined but in him they were. Another aspect of him also makes me think of the Greeks, for back in Greek society there was in fact a remarkable tolerance for the openness of an individual who wished to impress his personality.
Richard was made of ambition. He thirsted and burned for distinction. Many admirable men with excellent natural gifts had died without ever having been talked about, and he knew that few of their own accord would acknowledge another’s merits, and so his deepest motive was to obtain success, to inflict some faint scratch on the face of obscurity because only personal fame rescued you from the mass of the undiscerning and mediocre.
Diplomacy was the perfect field for him to obtain the full scope of action that his talents required. Diplomacy requires lengthy and extraordinary discussions of vital rival national interests. A nation cannot just formulate policies but must have an uncanny eye on the timing of their introduction. Bruyere wrote somewhere in his Characters, that the diplomat was “a chameleon, a Proteus. Sometimes, like a skilful card player, he betrays neither mood nor temperament, so as to give no scope for conjecture, nor allow his intentions to be read, or so as to prevent any of his secret thoughts to escape him in a moment of passion or weakness.”
The diplomat also “... knows how to assume the character that best befits the designs he harbors and the critical situation in which he finds himself. On some occasions either he will be secretive and impenetrable to conceal the truth while declaring it because it is important for him to have said it and not to have it believed… or he may appear lively and open in order to make others talk or to stop them from telling him what he does not wish or is not supposed to know or to say a great many unimportant things that qualify or contradict each other so was to confuse fear and trust in other men’s mind.” These skills were second nature to Richard.
The Dayton Accords I believe to be his masterpiece. (*) Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was, like Stalin and Hitler, an enemy of the human race. He had set in motion a vast program of theft, extortion and exploitation of Yugoslav’s Muslims, not shrinking from butchering them by the bushel. Tens of thousands of civilians had died defenseless at his hands, including the murder of 8,000 men, women and children at Srebrenica.
Holbrooke knew the obstacles. The prevailing mood of the participants of the talks would be one of prejudiced mistrust and rancid animosity. Prior to the conference Serbs had attacked and fought Croats, Croats had attacked Muslims and vice versa, and Croats and Muslims had joined to fight Bosnian Serbs. And all parties would be there, casting a cold eye.
Milosevic was in rare form, upbeat and full of bravado, but if he thought his charm, his swagger, his ability to intimidate, was going to carry the day -- if he thought he could drive a cunning, merciless bargain and go away a winner, he was wrong. Milosevic had always maintained that he had had no hand in the killings of Muslims and blamed it on others. So Holbrooke asked the CIA to prepare a “sanitized file” on the ties between Milosevic and a notorious Serb terrorist named Arkan along with the lists of arms including tanks, artillery, heavy weapons, air defense systems supplied by Milosevic to his proxies in Bosnia. No matter how piously Milosevic proclaimed his innocence, “Serbia was run by one man” said a British diplomat.
But Milosevic was no fumbler. Like Stalin he possessed a formidable range of mental talents. He boasted the ability to rapidly assimilate the facts, and was possessed of an informed, shrewd attention to detail and an uncanny knack for sensing the weakness in an argument. Like Stalin he seldom used a prepared text.
Yet this was right up Holbrooke’s street. It would be mind against mind, but at one point Holbrooke faced a moment of supreme crisis, and a mood of desperate revolution settled on him. He had tried to sow wheat, but it appeared he was reduced to harvesting chaff. The Croats and Serbs were threatening to sign a side agreement of their own, leaving out the Bosnian Serbs. This was understandable. The Bosnian Serbs were resentful, and indocile and in no mood to agree to anything. The conference tottered on the brink of collapse.
Holbrooke finally confronted their president, Alija Izetbegovic. Holbrooke’s pressure settled on the hapless Muslim with all its unremitting, suffocating force. The Americans had made amendments, retractions, offered proposals and counterproposals, introduced compromises – all of which met with no response from the Bosnian Muslims. Holbrooke was sick of this obstinate paralysis. His career was on the line. At the critical meeting, he told Izetbegovic that this was as good a deal as he was going to get. After Holbrooke’s statement, a long agonizing pause began. Nothing. More time passed as Izetbegovic sat and sweated, silent. Still no one spoke. Finally Izetbegovic said, “It is not a just peace.” Time stood still. Then suddenly he said, “But my people need peace.” The war was over.
For Milosevic it was the beginning of the end. U.S. intelligence had in hand enough evidence of his war crimes to have arrested him on his arrival in Dayton, but Holbrooke and others had wanted “a single address” – a single source of Serbian authority that could be counted on to produce results and that meant stomaching Milosevic.
With Dayton accomplished, the Clinton administration would now mount a vast covert operation that first toppled the Serb from power followed by Clinton’s sending in Seal Team Six to arrest Milosevic and send him to The Hague.
A forest of statues has sprung up around the demise of Richard Holbrooke. Some already look dingy and already seem to droop from fatigue. I have tried to pay him tribute here based on what I knew of him. Pat Lang said recently that brilliance is not the highest value and he’s right. The virtues that most deserve our highest praise and imitation consist of gifts of the heart, humility, meekness, loving kindness, the strength not to forge ahead but stand aside to let the weaker one go past. I can’t judge of these things when it comes to Holbrooke, but even these virtues rely on intelligence and insight.
Richard cared deeply for the unfortunate and the outcast and his work with refugees has displayed a value without price. What was he like as a father, a husband? I have no idea. I do have an idea of the huge hole he must have left in the family he loved. He had great natural gifts and astounding talents. He cared greatly for praise, esteem and gratitude and although he did not always receive these, he always worked on anyway.
I, like so many others, will greatly miss him.
_____* For a fuller account of the Dayton struggles and Holbrooke, please consult, Clinton’s Secret Wars, pp. 154-66.