Tribute to Richard Holbrooke

Article first published in The Huffington Post on 20 December 2010.

Last January, Richard Holbrooke called my cell phone at midnight, although we were both in DC. He had been Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan for a week and he wanted to quiz me on Afghanistan. After each reply he paused and then — just as I suspected he was texting someone else — growled “okay so what do we do?” “How can you prove that?” “What do we do about Pakistan? Iran? Russia? Karzai?” An hour later, he said “You’ve lost your argument against the 17,000 troop increase. But Petraeus is asking for another 40,000 in September and if you think that’s wrong you should say so.” He encouraged me to model myself on a general who had spoken against Vietnam in the Pentagon. He concluded, “I am sitting you next to Secretary Clinton at dinner. Say exactly what you think. If you don’t, I never — ever — want to hear you criticize the policy again.” And then he hung up, I guessed to call someone else.

I was left, standing half-to-attention in my boxer shorts at the end of the bed unsure what had just happened but prepared to do almost anything he asked. The energy of this man, thirty years older than me, at one in the morning shook me. But it was not his alertness, nor the charm of his sustained attention, nor his flattering comparisons, which captivated me. Nor was it even his revelations (I had thought that a decision on 17,000 troops was a month away and had no idea a further 40,000 was remotely likely). I was suspicious of his encouragement. But I was conquered by his contradictions. He was listening intently to someone with whom he disagreed and giving a platform to someone who argued against his own position. He wanted to transform the Pakistan, the Afghan and the US government — while I argued that it was impossible. He felt Afghanistan was vitally important and that we had a moral obligation to continue: I, that we had no moral obligation to do what we couldn’t do. But he poured his energy into me and gave me, I felt, a charter to fight against the Afghan policy.

Leaders are often detached from policy. They are hesitant to invest as much, emotionally or intellectually, particularly in this costly bewildering war, as it demands. Perhaps because they feel stuck with it, they have little desire to examine its foundations. They prefer writing objectives to rubbing their faces in the intractable stuff of Afghanistan.

Europeans and Afghans imply it is someone else’s responsibility. American politicians can bend to military advice; generals can radiate optimism and blame politics. But Holbrooke seemed to want to both expose the truth and take full responsibility for the policy. He wasn’t interested in tinsel triumphs. He had a real historical imagination, displayed in his surprisingly modest and scrupulous account of his role in the Balkans. I had heard him assess the weaknesses of early twentieth century Arabists with the insight, the fondness and sparks of envy that one might apply to a childhood friend. And he was aware of history’s questions — the kind of questions he posed of Vietnam — How important was it really? Did it make sense? Could it be done? And believing that it did and it could, he wanted to give space to those that disagreed.

I was unsettled by him, as much as charmed. And yet, when I try to understand what it might mean for a man to have a “destiny”, it’s Holbrooke, I think of: taking responsibility for a position and the truth of that position. And I think of his final line to a young foreigner, with whom he disagreed, “Say exactly what you think. If you don’t, I never — ever — want to hear you criticize the policy again.

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