Bully who pacified the Balkans
Richard Holbrooke does not smash people's heads on tables. But it's easy to imagine him doing so
Wednesday 14 October 1998
Of course, Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy to Serbia, does not literally smash people's heads on tables. But the fact is that it is easy to imagine him doing so. It makes a difference.
In the summer of 1995, after Nato's bombers had already pulverised half of the Bosnia Serbs' military capability, the generals wanted to call a halt. Holbrooke, a US career diplomat who had been called in in a last- ditch attempt to make peace, hectored and screamed. The Serbs, he said, had not been kicked around enough. They needed more bombs before they would take him seriously. In a now famous cable he wrote: "History could hang in the balance tonight. Give us bombs for peace."
This is the type of man whom Balkan leaders - and especially Slobodan Milosevic - respect. Just like Milosevic, Holbrooke is one moment charm personified, and the "raging bull" of diplomatic legend the next. Like Milosevic he is a man of tremendous stamina. Milosevic likes to wear his opponents down. He will begin talking late, over dinner, over copious amounts of alcohol, but even into the small hours his wit is never dulled. Of all the diplomats the world has thrown at the Serbian leader, only Holbrooke can match him drink for drink - and threat for threat.
Holbrooke succeeded in forging Bosnia's peace in a United States army base in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 because he had already proved his mettle. He had not flinched from bombing the Serbs and, more than that, had even ordered the Croatian defence minister to take certain towns from the Serbs - and to do it fast.
Of course, Holbrooke's character alone was not enough. He succeeded where the lords Carrington and Owen had failed, because he could back up his threats with Cruise missiles. It is no surprise, then, that Holbrooke's ill-fated venture to sort out Cyprus earlier this year came to nothing. Intransigent, Nato-member Turks and Greeks could call his bluff because they knew that, scream as loud as he wanted, he could not bomb them into submission.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Holbrooke's background is pure State Department. He was born in 1941 in New York of German Jewish descent. When he was 16 his father died, and he was taken under the wing of the family of Dean Rusk, the former US Secretary of State, according to a New York Times correspondent, Roger Cohen. He writes about Holbrooke in Hearts Grown Brutal, his book on Bosnia: "Rusk came to embody the idea of patriotism and public service that led Holbrooke into the Foreign Service after college at Brown, and make up one element in his personality."
But Cohen is sharp in sketching the "other" Richard Holbrooke: "The driving ambition, the impatience with form, the bad temper, the manipulative circumlocutions, the insatiability about publicity ... which placed his ideal of service and self-effacement grotesquely at odds with the baroque reality of being Richard Holbrooke."
In May 1968, Holbrooke as a young diplomat was present in Paris when the US talked to the Vietcong. Later he served in Asia, becoming President Carter's under-secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. There he won plaudits but also brickbats as he was accused of becoming too close by far to the Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife during negotiations over the renewal of leases of the then two big American bases there.
True or not, Holbrooke himself had always insisted that a foreign policy without an ideal is one that is doomed to failure. In his own book, his memoir of Dayton, To End a War, he writes that the supposed choice in international relations between "realists" and "liberals" is a false one. "In the long run, our strategic interests and human rights supported and reinforced each other and could be advanced at the same time."
It is, again, the clash of ideal and brute force which characterise the man.
He is also not one to shirk the notion of US leadership. At the end of his Bosnian memoir he wrote, prophetically in view of the last few weeks: "There will be other Bosnias in our lives and American leadership will be required. The world's richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden."
Holbrooke's deal opens the door for Serbs and Albanians to strike a compromise. It may not be ideal - but if they succeed it will be better than war without end. But, Holbrooke will, with this agreement, have made few friends among Kosovo's Albanians. True or not, they will always believe that he has a personal motive in opposing their struggle for independence. For, if Kosovo succeeds in seceding from Yugoslavia, what justification is there for sustaining Holbrooke's Bosnia?
Why should Serbs and Croats stay in the Bosnia they have shown little enthusiasm for if the Albanians are the ones that "got away"?
Holbrooke wants his place in history and more than that - he wants to be Secretary of State. In the last round he lost out to Madeleine Albright. But his day may yet come.
After Dayton, he retired from foreign service to become a banker. He claimed that this was because he wanted to spend more time in New York with his wife, the Hungarian-born writer, Kati Marton. Adding to the Holbrooke legend, she caused a minor sensation when she told an interviewer that he was the first man in her life who had satisfied her both "intellectually and physically".
And Holbrooke is also a man with an earthy sense of humour. In Athens to broker a deal between Greeks and Macedonians, he writes of his encounter with Dimitra Papandreou, the Prime Minister's wife. She was wearing, he says, "an almost transparent silk pyjama suit that barely concealed important parts of her impressive anatomy".
No wonder banking bored Holbrooke. Over the last three years he has been called upon to make several follow-up missions to Bosnia, to tackle Cyprus and now Kosovo. And he has been rewarded. President Clinton recently nominated him US Ambassador to the UN, a job which is now being held up after an anonymous letter questioned the propriety of some of his business dealings. It seems unlikely though, that this hiccup will stop the man. In a world where villains are presidents and diplomats wimps, he is a real character, a John Wayne or Bruce Willis, a doer.
And, despite his ambition and giant ego, we need not be too cynical about the man. After all, he makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for some of the men he has to deal with. He has openly called the Balkan leaders "junkyard dogs" and "skunks". Still, he justifies dealing with them by referring to three colleagues who died on a mission to Sarajevo: "If you can prevent the deaths of people still alive, you're not doing a disservice to those already killed by trying to do so." And who are we to argue with that?
Tim Judah is the author of 'The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia', published by Yale at pounds 9.95
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