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How We Can Honor Richard Holbrooke’s Memory

As Richard Holbrooke's friends and colleagues gathered in the entrance to George Washington Hospital last night to console each other and begin the vigil for his soul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came down from saying goodbye to her friend and adviser. Richard's staff gathered around her. As she exhorted them to keep up his vital work and then read out to them the condolence statement she had just issued, my heart broke at the sight. Young American diplomats with grim faces, tears rolling down their cheeks—one from India, another from Pakistan, a third from Iran, a fourth with Italian forefathers, a fifth the son of a legendary actress, the sixth a bald-headed Brit, and on and on. Each of them brilliant in their own way. All of them Richard's disciples. He had yet again handpicked the best and the brightest of a new generation to support his latest, most complex and difficult diplomatic mission. And now their captain had been taken from them.

At that moment, I felt envious. They at least had the immense privilege of working for Richard, and learning from him. He taught them the vital importance of diplomacy in ending conflicts, saving lives, and improving the world. He taught them to be passionate about their work and compassionate to their fellow human beings. He taught them to be intolerant of bureaucracy, but respectful of serious people and their ideas. He taught them to be mindful of their role in history, and therefore never to give up in their efforts to help shape it—if the door was closed, he would urge them to try the window, for theirs was a noble cause. Of course they also had to put up with his occasional impatience and insensitivity. But that price was easily paid because beneath the apparent imperviousness, they came to know that he carried a fierce and abiding loyalty to them all.

I was a latecomer to Richard's vast circle of friends. He had steered clear of the Middle East morass, instinctively understanding that his diplomatic talents were better suited to more tractable if no less complicated conflicts. It was instead through my love Gahl Burt that I came to know the other side of Richard: The builder of institutions to do the people-to-people work that could buttress American diplomatic efforts around the world. He had chosen Gahl as his partner in establishing the American Academy in Berlin, an extraordinary institution which brings the very best American writers, artists, musicians, scholars, and policy experts to Berlin to cement the cultural ties between the United States and Germany. The Asia Society and Refugees International were similar beneficiaries of his boundless determination. How many ambassadors after leaving their posts would imagine, let alone have the energy to construct, such enduring mechanisms of a civil society? They are but one shining part of the Holbrooke legacy.

Richard Holbrooke was a diplomatic bulldozer with a seemingly limitless supply of fuel. Inevitably, the resentments of those in Washington who felt pushed aside accumulated. They almost did him in last year. Some of his close friends advised him to give up; told him it wasn't worth it. But of course Richard refused. He was never one to leave the arena in mid-fight. And just as his fortunes in Washington began to improve so too did the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation start a slow turn toward a political endgame where his talents would be most needed. Tragically, the fuel ran out last night.

The Hebrew sage, Rabbi Tarfon, once wrote, "It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." That was Richard's motto. We will honor the memory of this great American diplomat if we too do not desist.

Martin Indyk is a former United States ambassador to Israel and member of the Clinton Administration. He is currently the Vice President for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.