Strange Bedfellow

Obnoxious for Peace

How Richard Holbrooke put his bad qualities to good works.

Richard Holbrooke is a person many people can’t stand. Though he may be no more ambitious or egotistical than a lot of career-minded Washingtonians, he is exceedingly transparent about it. Physically large, he can be seen in photographs towering over his rivals–and sometimes elbowing them out of the picture frame. A courtier worthy of Shakespeare, Holbrooke is legendary for his flattery and back stabbing, and even for buttering someone up and sticking the knife in at the same time.

Those who tend to roll their eyes at the mention of Holbrooke’s name will find much eye-rolling material in his book To End a War: From Sarajevo to Dayton and Beyond, which is about his role in negotiating a peace settlement in Bosnia. In places, Holbrooke’s account reads like a self-nominating speech for secretary of state or the Nobel Peace Prize, distinctions for which his stomach audibly growls. Holbrooke seldom declines the chance to fluff up someone who might be useful to him in the future, especially if that someone is a journalist. Roger Cohen of the New York Times is “astute.” Stephen Engelberg, also of the Times, is “impressive.” William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune is “insightful.” Holbrooke suffers from a strain of narcissism that impels him to quote himself, frequently and at length, including from diaries, articles, TV interviews, faxes, and private letters to the president. His name-dropping is out of control. At one point, he offers the odd boast that it was his idea to send Ron Brown on a trade mission to Bosnia–the mission that led to the death of the commerce secretary and 34 others.

But those who fixate on Holbrooke’s insufferability do him a serious injustice. Holbrooke lacks subtlety, modesty, and discretion. He can be vain, pompous, and ridiculous. We know this. But he also managed to carry off, almost by sheer force of personality, an accomplishment that eluded governments, world leaders, and multilateral organizations for four years: He ended the war in Bosnia. The story he tells is really about performing a kind of jujitsu with his own personality, channeling his dubious personal qualities–his bullying, his egomania, and his impatient ambition–toward the noble (and perhaps Nobel) end of peace in the Balkans. One of the lessons his book teaches is that in politics, self-interest isn’t the opposite of public interest. To the contrary, ego can be the engine that makes political and diplomatic accomplishments possible. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help liking and admiring Holbrooke–not despite his evident flaws but in a curious way because of them.

Holbrooke’s intervention in the Balkans is a rejoinder to the social historians’ conceit that individual actors don’t really matter. In the summer of 1992, Holbrooke went to Bosnia as a private citizen, with a refugee aid organization, and saw horrors such as Muslims being driven out of the town of Banja Luka, where their families had lived for four centuries. He resolved to try to do something about it. As part of candidate Clinton’s foreign policy brain trust, Holbrooke prodded him to take an interventionist stand, which Clinton did. After the election, Holbrooke wrote a memo to Warren Christopher and Anthony Lake advocating the strategy known as “lift and strike”–lifting the arms embargo that prevented the Muslims from defending themselves, and bombing the Bosnian Serbs. He also asked for the job of special negotiator on Bosnia. Holbrooke’s rival Lake made sure none of this happened. The Bosnia job went to someone else. Holbrooke was kept away from the issue and on the periphery of foreign policy-making in general. Eventually he was named ambassador to Germany. Clinton’s tough talk stopped.

B ut Holbrooke still cherished hopes of involving the United States. Offered the post of assistant secretary of state for European affairs, a job he considered beneath his dignity, he took it for the sake of directing American diplomatic efforts in the Balkans. As he pushed and prodded, wheedled and connived, the crusade became more personal. Early in his shuttle diplomacy, three colleagues, including his top deputy, were killed in a gruesome road accident for which the Bosnian Serb warlords were indirectly to blame. This tragedy spurred him in his hazardous ricocheting between Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo and helped bring about better-late-than-never NATO airstrikes in 1995. When he was dissatisfied with official policy, Holbrooke undermined it. For instance, he was supposed to take advantage of the bombing to demand a cease-fire by all sides. In fact, he encouraged the Croatian-Muslim Federation to keep fighting, since it was making territorial gains that he thought would make a territorial settlement easier.

Holbrooke does not waste a lot of time on the question of whether intervening in Bosnia was in our national “interest.” In answer to former Secretary of State James Baker’s view that we didn’t have a dog in that fight, he asserts the United States had a Samaritan’s obligation to stop ethnic cleansing. The Europeans having failed, we were the only ones who could do anything about it. Inside the administration, he fought off objections from the military. Spooked by anything that smacked of “mission creep” or “nation building,” the Pentagon resisted sending American troops to Bosnia and has refused to allow them to become involved with refugees, elections, or human rights. Holbrooke continues to argue for what he calls a “maximalist” interpretation of our military role. He views it as a scandal that the Bosnian Serb war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic have yet to be captured and brought to justice.

The narrative climaxes in Dayton, Ohio, where the combatants sat around an Air Force base for three weeks and reached a peace accord. Holbrooke is a proponent of the intuitive, improvisational school of negotiation. He played tennis with Franjo Tudjman, drank shots of plum brandy with Slobodan Milosevic before lunch, enacted hysterical scenes of feigned and real anger, and essentially sat on the heads of the various participants until they cried uncle. Here the story becomes especially gripping and takes an unexpected turn. It is the president of the Bosnian Muslims, Alia Izetbegovic, who turns out to be the biggest obstacle to peace, unwilling to make even meaningless concessions. On the other hand, the brutal but undeniably charming Milosevic, the man most responsible for starting the Yugoslav civil war, saves the accord with territorial concessions at the last moment.

Surely Holbrooke pursued peace in the Balkans in part for the glory involved. And as one not afflicted with false modesty–or any other kind–he clearly enjoys his plaudits immensely. But by the end of the book, the issue of Holbrooke’s motivation no longer looms very large. From an early stage, he found himself drawn into something larger than himself, something more compelling than his own career. As the object elevates him, his pettiness melts away.