Richard Holbrooke was not your ordinary pin-striped diplomat. Of course he could be polite, even charming. But Holbrooke, who had a knack for taking on difficult assignments, was often brash, assertive and results-oriented.
Holbrooke's diplomatic career started in Vietnam in the 1960s. By the mid-'70s, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, the youngest person to have reached that rank. His career also included assignments representing the U.S. as ambassador to Germany and the United Nations.
Best known for having brokered the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the 1990s conflict in the Balkans, Holbrooke by then had a well developed ability to negotiate politically realistic solutions to tough problems at home and abroad.
Having gathered and confined the region's leaders to a small conference center on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio far from the distractions of Washington, Holbrooke had them just where he wanted them. If a gentle bit of cajoling was needed, OK. If it took raising his voice to get the desired point across, that was fine too. Over a three-week period, Holbrooke and Secretary of State Warren Christopher shuttled back and forth between the warring factions, finally hammering out a peace agreement to end the fighting.
One negotiation, which required not only diplomatic but also political skill, was working out a plan with the late chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, to repay America's overdue debt to the United Nations. A staunch opponent of the U.N., Helms, a conservative from North Carolina, was not easily convinced. Along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Holbrooke, then-President Bill Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, was able to work out an arrangement that satisfied Helms, Mr. Clinton and the U.N. hierarchy.
No one had any doubts about Richard Holbrooke's intellect. He was whip-smart. But throughout his career Holbrooke's style and his ambition rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Not known as the most collegial fellow around Foggy Bottom, there were some in the foreign service who wanted no part of an assignment if it meant working with Holbrooke, a state of affairs which didn't seem to trouble him at all.
Despite his demanding style, Holbrooke never seemed to have much difficulty getting very talented people to work for him. This was never more true than as Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the task that turned out to be his final diplomatic challenge.
Once appointed by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to oversee the civilian side of the conflict, Holbrooke gathered enough experts from across various government agencies and universities to have some at the State Department refer to his team as "Planet Holbrooke." That he and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, had a difficult working relationship was just another problem that he downplayed when the subject was raised.
Among Holbrooke's many skill sets was a well honed ability to deal with the media. On a number of his frequent trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan he took along reporters who represented media outlets in the region because he was always looking for ways to influence local public opinion more favorably toward the American effort in the region.
Often to the chagrin of his bosses, Holbrooke liked to talk to reporters. On one occasion, having just returned to the State Department from a long flight back from South Asia and encountering in an elevator one reporter who covered the diplomatic beat, Holbrooke spent 10 minutes telling the journalist about all the things that were going well and that were not being reported. He had his favorites in the Washington press corps and he was tireless - some said shameless - in his efforts to get the media to pay attention to his latest diplomatic accomplishments and to him.
The worst kept secret in Washington was that Richard Holbrooke wanted to be the Secretary of State. His entire career was spent preparing for the day he might become America's top diplomat. But it was not meant to be. Paying tribute, President Obama, speaking shortly before Holbrooke's death was announced, called him "simply one of the giants of American foreign policy." That would place Richard Holbrooke in a category most secretaries of state never reach.