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If Only Holbrooke Had Been Given a Free Hand in Afghanistan

One can just imagine what the Wikileaks records of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomacy would have looked like. His salty, roustabout’s slinging of abuse when needed; his explosive pugnacity while negotiating in person and his relentlessly unsentimental drive towards a result—none of it would have looked pretty on paper. Yet he pulled off the impossible by imposing stability on the Balkans with the Dayton Accords. The world had been waiting for a second Holbrooke miracle, this time in Afghanistan, when the veteran diplomat died on Monday, having failed to recover from a long operation on his heart.

The late leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alia Izetbegovic, used to complain loudly that he was forced into the Dayton deal by Holbrooke’s incessant bullying. And yet it was Holbrooke who allowed the Muslims and the Croats to cheat during the temporary ceasefires at war’s end to recapture chunks of their lost territory. Conversely, having engineered the air strikes against Serbia, Holbrooke charmed and coddled Slobodan Milosevic at Dayton and then pitilessly cheered on the postwar prosecutions of Serb leaders for war crimes.

President Clinton was very lucky to have Holbrooke—indeed he didn’t want him at first. Like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton was a reluctant and uninspired dabbler in foreign affairs, too often rather clueless about who to appoint to which troublesome task. As Holbrooke made clear in his memoirs, he only got the Balkan portfolio after much lobbying in the face of resistance from Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s make-it-go-away approach to world crises accidentally succeeded in the Balkans: It gave Holbrooke a free hand to bang heads together to force an outcome.

A free hand is precisely what Holbrooke was not allowed in Afghanistan: From the military to Robert Gates to Hillary Clinton, too many players on his side could countermand him. When Holbrooke tried to strong-arm Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president simply refused to deal with him and the United States caved. Holbrooke was made to shift his focus to Pakistan, which simply diffused the holistic solution that someone like Holbrooke might impose on the region. One suspects that he would have battled away to regain the requisite seniority under President Obama, and perhaps got the nod just as the Obama era ended. How many times, within living memory, have you been struck by the notion that the right person was brilliantly appointed to the right task in Washington?

It’s no secret that Holbrooke badly wanted to be secretary of state. He himself made no secret of it, or of his sense that he was the best man for the job. Would he have been a great secretary of state? In the few times I met him, he came across as a man out of his time. A craggy, bruising but essentially noble World War ll-era quality emanated from him. He talked at you with a loud gravelly voice, and listened at best rather impatiently. 

He once invited a friend of mine, an Afghan expert, to advise him on the scene there. My friend began to tell him about the various tribes, the corruption, the difficult terrain. “Don’t tell me about the problems. … I know the problems, just give me solutions,” barked Holbrooke—so my friend says. In fact, Holbrooke probably did know the problems. He read widely and gathered information ferociously. But he did not want to know too much—enough only to discern and hammer a solution into place.

Holbrooke was, in the end, a man to whom you could entrust a particular task, the harder the better—win a war, rebuild New Orleans maybe—and he would get it done somehow. But ask him to manage world affairs, with the requisite tact and infinite patience and pliant imagination… I’m not so sure. Still, when Americans like him—experienced problem-solvers—did run the world, as they did for much of the last century, they did pretty well. With Holbrooke gone, there are scarcely any of them left.

Melik Kaylan writes for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes.