Veteran U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, 69, whose relentless prodding and deft maneuvering yielded the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, a feat he hoped to emulate as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, died Monday in Washington from complications following surgery to repair a torn aorta.
A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals around the world. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan.
News of Mr. Holbrooke’s death came after Obama, speaking at a State Department holiday reception, praised him as “simply one of the giants of American foreign policy.”
“Tonight America has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Monday night, adding, “He was one of a kind – a true statesman – and that makes his passing all the more painful.”
Mr. Holbrooke’s death could have a profound impact on the administration’s efforts to implement aspects of its strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which relies not just on military gains but development assistance and diplomatic initiatives with the governments in Kabul and neighboring Pakistan that had been his principal focus.
Mr. Holbrooke’s expansive career began in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where he served as a field officer, and included appointments as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state in U.S. history. When Republicans were in power, he was a banker, journalist and best-selling author.
His most prominent role was as a presidential wartime problem solver, to which Mr. Holbrooke applied an unwavering energy, a flair for diplomatic improvisation and a hard-charging style that could yield dramatic breakthroughs but also generate bitterness and enmity, even among his American teammates.
Although the consequences of his forceful personality were laid bare in his efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to tense disagreements with leaders of those nations and fellow U.S. officials, Mr. Holbrooke never stopped trying to address the insurgencies that threaten both countries.
Over the past year, he maintained a peripatetic existence, often subsisting on just a few hours of sleep a night, as he globe-trotted to shore up allied support for the war and a costly reconstruction program.
“As anyone who has ever worked with him knows – or had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him – Richard is relentless,” Obama said at the reception. “He never stops. He never quits. Because he’s always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interests, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged.”
A defining moment
Mr. Holbrooke’s most significant achievement occurred in 1995, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, when he forged a deal among bitter rivals to end three years of bloody sectarian war in the former Yugoslavia that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
The talks, which lasted 20 days, would not have taken place had he not spent three months shuttling among the principal Serbian, Croatian and Muslim leaders to cajole, arm-twist and threaten, while also employing the bone-jarring power of U.S.-led NATO airstrikes.