How will Richard Holbrooke be remembered?
Richard Holbrooke’s death is undoubtedly a great loss to American diplomacy. President Barack Obama has called him “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also paid tribute to Mr. Holbrooke calling him "one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants" and “a true statesman”.
Many world leaders and statesmen expressed their regret over Mr. Holbrooke’s death remembering his achievements in the field of international politics.
The legacy left by Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat, statesman, journalist, author and investment banker, is in fact enormous. But in history he will probably be primarily remembered as the author of the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, and as a special presidential envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan – the position he was appointed to in January 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration, and held till his death on December 13, 2010.
Mr. Holbrooke’s achievements and failures in the diplomatic field arise from two sources.
One is his indisputable personal qualities – intellect and firm character that got him the nickname “Bulldozer”. His outspoken manner, robust and combative style as negotiator brought success for the talks he held, and at the same time created a number of enemies – both among foreign politicians and inside the administration. Once, speaking of the then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Mr. Holbrooke remarked that he had no qualms about "negotiating with people who do immoral things", if it served efforts for peace.
The other side of Mr. Holbrooke diplomatic activity is inseparable from the general line of US foreign policy. He was probably one of the most ardent proponents of US supremacy in the world, and therefore, things he did are regarded as great achievements by the US and its allies, but may be looked at very differently in other parts of the world.
For instance, the Dayton agreement did stop violence in Bosnia. But what it created and secured for years on, was a virtual separation of the three main ethnic and religious groups there – Serbs, on the one hand, and Croatians and Muslims, on the other.
Further on, the Dayton agreement on Bosnia later led to an escalation of violence in the former Yugoslavia, to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, and eventual dismemberment of former Yugoslavia that ended with the secession of Kosovo.
The usual American “double standards” were obviously reflected in Richard Holbrooke’s activity in this field. While welcoming Kosovo secession, he was one of the first foreign statesmen to visit Tbilisi in August 2008 to demonstrate his support for Mikhail Saakashvili’s aggression against South Ossetia.
One may wonder why Barack Obama’s choice fell on Mr. Holbrooke when appointing him as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and whether Obama was contemplating on a “Dayton-like” perspective for Afghanistan, that is dismembering the country and creating walls between different ethnic groups.
In his last posting, Richard Holbrooke was as usual indefatigable, determined and incredibly well-informed about the tiniest details. But even with all his efforts and energy, the situation in Afghanistan and in the neighboring areas of Pakistan does not seem to have improved – despite the brave statements made by Holbrooke himself and other US officials.
Probably, it is not his personal fault, and not even the fault of the present Administration, but the result of a strategy that was doomed from the very beginning, when George W. Bush decided to start a war against Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11 attacks. This policy alienated large portions of the Muslim world against the Americans, including the long-time US ally Pakistan.
On the other hand, while handling the Afghan – Pakistan clutch of problems, Mr. Holbrooke did not avoid certain mistakes. His pressing on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to combat corruption led to a serious aggravation of US – Afghan relations. Mr. Holbrooke, as the senior US civilian representative in Afghanistan, did not seem to always find common ground with the US military there.
And one of his decisions that is being presented now as an achivement, in fact has a very dubious meaning. One of his first initiatives as special envoy was to end the U.S. focus on poppy eradication in Afghanistan. It is true that poppy cultivation is the main source of income for many Afghan farmers, but the result was catastrophic: now the poppy production drastically reduced by the Taliban, has well exceeded the pre-Taliban level, making Afghanistan the number one source of opium-based narcotics in the world.
Once again, this does not diminish Richard Holbrooke’s personal significance in US diplomacy. He really was a true servant of his motherland. Whether the country he served deserves as much praise as her servant, is another question.