During the past week the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs has been variously described by anonymous colleagues in America's news pages as abrasive, vain, egomaniac, domineering, manipulative, narcissistic and nakedly ambitious. While everyone is quick to concede that Mr Holbrooke is also very talented, intelligent and brilliant, a curiously unflattering portrait has been emerging of the man who has done more than anyone else to help restore the international credibility of America and the Western alliance.
He has succeeded - where Lords Carrington and Owen, Cyrus Vance and other notables have failed - in negotiating an end to the siege of Sarajevo. He has also brought the prospect of a Bosnian peace settlement closer than at any point in three and a half years of conflict. A happy coincidence of factors assisted him but, as Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations observed, he was the only figure in the Clinton administration and beyond "with the understanding and the guts to seize the strategic opportunity".
In an exercise not so much of shuttle as pinball diplomacy, Mr Holbrooke has spent the last month storming back and forth between Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Geneva persuading, cajoling, bullying, upping antes and cutting deals. His "talks" with the warring factions have often descended into shouting matches. Before the Geneva meeting earlier this month - where the first steps were taken towards a partitioned solution to the Bosnia crisis - word reached Mr Holbrooke that the Bosnian foreign minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, was threatening not to show up. Whereupon he promptly got on the phone and yelled him into submission.
At one point during the Geneva encounter Nikola Koljevic, a Bosnian Serb official who felt he was being slighted by Mr Holbrooke, stood up and said he was leaving. "Go ahead! Walk out!" Mr Holbrooke said, before dragging the hapless Mr Koljevic into a side-room and brusquely convincing him to stay on.
Mr Holbrooke "has a short fuse, a very short fuse", said a diplomat who knows him well, but he also has staying power. He battled toe to toe for 11 hours with Slobodan Milosevic at the critical meeting in Belgrade 10 days ago where agreement was finally reached for a Bosnian Serb military withdrawal from Sarajevo. It was a rough encounter and a tense one, not least because of the unexpected appearance in the room of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb military and political leaders. Mr Holbrooke curtly acknowledged the presence of the two indicted war criminals but continued to address himself to Mr Milosevic, standing up to him with the presumption not of an assistant secretary but of a fellow head of state. "He has his goal and I have mine," he says of his discussions with Mr Milosevic. "Sometimes he says what I say is bullshit and sometimes I say what he says is bullshit. We're direct with each other."
This is not Douglas Hurd-speak. This is gunboat diplomacy without the gunboat. The approach works in the Balkans but it does not go down so well in Washington where Mr Holbrooke is accused of treating many of his colleagues in no less peremptory a manner. Sir Robin Renwick, until two months ago Britain's ambassador to Washington, is a keen admirer of Mr Holbrooke whom he describes as "an extremely energetic, determined and tough operator who doesn't suffer fools gladly - doesn't suffer fools at all". Mr Holbrooke's subordinates, intellectually cowed by him, are said to live in terror of his tongue-lash. As for his superiors, he treats them, if not with disdain, with little of the outward show of reverence Washington eminences expect. He has been known to show up at the White House and, unannounced and unexpected, request an audience with President Clinton - which he usually obtains.
If Mr Holbrooke is supremely self-assured it is in part because of his connections. William Maynes, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a friend of Mr Holbrooke's, said that he forged "something like a public school bond" with highly placed people in the Clinton administration when he first embarked on his foreign service career in the early 1960s.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE joined the foreign office after graduating from Brown University in 1962. He was swiftly identified as a bright young talent by then secretary of state Dean Rusk. Soon he found himself at the US Embassy in Saigon where he became friends with two other young diplomats, Anthony Lake, now Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser, and Peter Tarnoff, the under-secretary of state. A few years later he fetched up in the Paris embassy, where he observed Henry Kissinger at close quarters during the Vietnam peace talks. As he rose through the ranks he acquired a reputation as a brazen self-promoter but, while he lost the affection of many of his peers, he won the admiration of the people who made the decisions. During the Carter administration he rose precociously, aged 35, to the position of assistant secretary of state for Asia. When Ronald Reagan took over the White House in 1980 he left the foreign service for Wall Street. He joined Lehman Brothers, a big New York investment bank, at a salary of $900,000 a year. His old associates from the Vietnam and Carter days invited him back to the fold when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. He served as ambassador to Bonn and a year ago was appointed to his present position.
The drop in salary was substantial after Wall Street, but Holbrooke is a man who finds political power more alluring than money. His second wife, Blythe Holbrooke, told Vanity Fair last year that he was "the ultimate Washington nightmare husband", a ferociously single-minded political climber. This does not appear to trouble his third wife, Kati Marton, a respected author and journalist whom he married in May this year. As People magazine described it, Ms Marton was moping in a Paris hotel room on Christmas Day 1993, six months after ending her marriage with the celebrated ABC television news anchor Peter Jennings, when she picked up the phone and called Mr Holbrooke, an old friend who also happened to be holidaying in Paris. The middle-aged couple - she is now 46, he 54 - had "a wild, first-date fling", People reported, and have been gushing over each other ever since.
Happy as Mr Holbrooke is reported to have been at his wedding in Budapest, Ms Marton's birthplace, he could not turn his mind entirely away from Bosnia where even as he was declaring "I do" the Bosnian Serbs were taking 400 UN soldiers hostage. The day after the marriage ceremony he gave a speech in which he lashed out at his own government and its Nato allies, denouncing what he called "the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s".
But circumstances changed. President Clinton decided that it would assist his bid for re-election next year if he could mop up the Bosnian mess well ahead of time. Mr Holbrooke, alone in the administration, possessed the necessary mix of intelligence, cunning and Patton-like aggression to engage in effective Balkan diplomacy.
The cynical view in Washington is that Mr Holbrooke has done as well as he has because of his hunger for political reward - specifically to be appointed Secretary of State should Mr Clinton be re-elected next year. His friend William Maynes says his detractors' minds have been poisoned by envy: "It tells us more about the culture of Washington than about Dick that people should be so inflamed by his alleged personal faults that they are actually willing to see his peace initiative in Bosnia fail."
Mr Holbrooke's own response to his critics, as he told Newsweek recently, is that "there's nothing wrong with ambition as long as it's harnessed to a mission or moral cause". Evidence exists to support the view that he is driven in Bosnia by a personal animus, a sincere outrage at what the Bosnian Serbs have done. In 1992, while he was still working as a banker in New York, he went on a fact-finding mission to Bosnia under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee to investigate reports of ethnic cleansing. Without the media in attendance, or the military escorts to which he is now accustomed, he exposed himself to serious risk in Bosnian Serb-held territory and returned home to write in the Washington Post a heartfelt lament of the West's failure to respond in a manner commensurate with the horrors being perpetrated against the Bosnian Muslims. In an interview with Newsday in September 1992 Mr Holbrooke, who is Jewish, said: "If ... Christians or Jews were being attacked in Bosnia, there would be a lot more concern".
Mr Holbrooke may be a bully, but he is a bully with a conscience. After the crucial 11-hour meeting at which President Milosevic unexpectedly ushered General Mladic and Mr Karadzic into the room, Mr Holbrooke made an important phone call. In a characteristic break with diplomatic protocol, he spoke to the Bosnian war crimes tribunal in the Hague to let them know that the two men most wanted in connection with the atrocities of recent years were to be found in Belgrade, under the protection of the Serbian government.