Thoughts on Holbrooke


Diplomacy is a paradoxically insular world. And most of the nation’s foreign affairs get little treatment in the headlines. So I imagine that more than a few readers are wondering why we’re giving such major treatment to the death of an Obama administration official who many of you probably have never heard of or perhaps only in passing.

As the obituaries note, Holbrooke was key figure in US diplomacy for almost half a century. One fun fact: he authored a substantial portion of the Pentagon Papers. What may or may not come through as clearly was the size of the personality and the doggedness — a fact that likely kept him from the top job of Secretary of State in this and last Democratic administration.Vice President Biden’s statement contains these two sentence: “Richard Holbrooke was a larger than life figure, who through his brilliance, determination and sheer force of will helped bend the curve of history in the direction of progress … He was a tireless negotiator, a relentless advocate for American interests, and the most talented diplomat we’ve had in a generation.”

His reputation rests on his role in ending the war in Yugoslavia, where he demonstrated a cold-eyed, unabashedly pragmatic mix of cajoling, bullying, threatening and negotiating mixed with bombing to achieve an eminently just and moral end, which makes him on several levels a hero to many of us.

I interviewed Holbrooke once at length about seven years ago. And he was kind enough to attend a party for TPM which our Editor at Large Steve Clemons hosted this spring. If my memory serves he had only just back from an angioplasty procedure, which perhaps presaged this final illness.

If you’re interested in learning more, I can’t recommend enough reading To End a War, his memoir of the diplomatic struggle to end the war in Yugoslavia. Holbrooke was the architect of the Dayton Accords. Wonderful book.

According to the Post, family members say his last words as he was sedated for surgery were: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

It’s a line I’m sure we’ll hear more of.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of