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Posted at 11:33 PM ET, 12/13/2010

Richard Holbrooke, a force of personality

By David Ignatius

Islamabad -- Mourners often talk about people who were "larger than life," but in the case of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, that shopworn phrase really did apply. He was too big, too brilliant, too ambitious and, at times, too self-absorbed, to fit neatly into the holes and pegs that are assigned for rising government officials.

Holbrooke, who passed away late Monday night, was someone identified by his colleagues as a likely future secretary of state as early as his first, flamboyant tour of duty in Vietnam. He never achieved that dream, and it's fair to say that his final job, as President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was among the most difficult and frustrating assignments of his long career.

Holbrooke hoped he could crack the problem by the sheer force of his intellect and big-man charisma. I remember traveling with him on his first major swing through Afghanistan and Pakistan, in April 2009. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a man Joe Klein of Time once likened to a genial "country doctor," tried to smooth over every bump on the trip. But Holbrooke didn't want smoothing. He insisted on meeting fierce Pashtun tribesmen for roundtable discussions, as if we could resolve everything right then and there with enough talk. In Islamabad, he met with a group of young intellectuals from Pakistan's tribal areas -- and Pakistani intelligence officials were so anxious about what he might be up to that they were said to have stopped and interrogated these brave men and women on their way back home. The Islamabad meeting, though, was as creative and useful an encounter as I've seen anyone organize as part of Af-Pak diplomacy. It was vintage Holbrooke.

But he offended too many of the smaller and more particular people he needed to work with, in the Obama administration and abroad. He clashed famously with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who not entirely without reason thought that Holbrooke wanted him out, as well as with various other personalities in Afghanistan. Pretty soon, it became difficult for the Af-Pak negotiator to spend much productive time in Af-Pak, which wasn't good. He made an effort to throttle back that magnificent personality -- trying not to give too many interviews, trying not to be a dominating presence. It was a hopeless task, like trying to bottle lightning. If he saw something that offended or appealed to him, Holbrooke could not keep his mouth shut.

The saddest clashes to watch were between Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, another big man. They (and even more, their staffs) traded unkind words in one of those Washington feuds that is talked about constantly but written about too little. The tension grew so large that by early this year, Obama reportedly told his subordinates in the White House that he planned to remove Holbrooke. But the veteran negotiator appealed to his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who knew his value, and he was given a reprieve.

But that was a political reprieve only. Holbrooke continued to drive himself to make work a policy that, it must be said, had even more loose ends and contradictions than did the Af-Pak coordinator himself. And in the end, the job proved too much.

By David Ignatius  | December 13, 2010; 11:33 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Comments

"And in the end, the job proved too much. "

What's that supposed to mean, Mr. Ignatius? Are you saying his job caused his aorta to rupture? Or are you just bloviating?

Posted by: turningfool | December 14, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Kinder and more accurate to say, he gave his heart for his country.

Posted by: HavennerKP | December 14, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

He accomplished wonders for the Balkans. He tried very hard in Afghanistan/Pakistan; however, in AfPak one simply cannot insult a leader in public and expect to ever, ever again be taken seriously by that leader. It's not like that in Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, he was talented for one and ill-suited for the other. Perhaps he would have done better as Secretary of State had he appointed a Clinton as his AfPak point person.

Posted by: viewpoint3 | December 14, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Holbrooke was the Democrats version of Neville Chamberlain

Holbrooke was an antiAmerican appeaser...a career coward...a democrat

Good Riddance

Posted by: georgedixon1 | December 14, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

You know George D, when a man dies who worked so tirelessly for our country, you'd think that in this unfortunate time of such hate and vitriol in comment sections of political stories, that this one time - everyone could suspend the hate for one day in posting about this man.

He's dead for geez sake.

Posted by: kim4 | December 14, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Well he lived a good life. He sponged off the government most of it. He did the job he was assigned like many do in life. So he died many do daily. Good honest people. I am getting so tired that every time some lifelong government politician dies the press act as if Christ has died.

Posted by: harley2002 | December 14, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

You know George D, when a man dies who worked so tirelessly for our country, you'd think that in this unfortunate time of such hate and vitriol in comment sections of political stories, that this one time - everyone could suspend the hate for one day in posting about this man.
==================

Let me second that. There are still good people drawn to government service with the idea of making the world a better place. By all accounts Holbrooke was one of them. We need more like him.

Posted by: jack824 | December 14, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Let's be honest here even in his Death .
He was a far left elite's elite Liberal and all to often saw America as the Villain especially during Bush 41 Dad's 4 years and Bush 43.s 8 years .
A fair deal to him was always American appeasement since he saw America as did our enemies as the "Wrong doer " much like Obama .
We have heard about Jesus walking on Water .
Holbrooke saw his aloof total arrogance as his walking on water .
You got the feeling watching him talk to "anyone " .
He was talking down to them and they should Bow and kiss his Ring.
Humility was a word this man knew not .

Posted by: same15259 | December 14, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Ignatius--"And in the end, the job proved too much." That's a rather ungracious, inelegant and, frankly inaccurate assessment of this extraordinary man's last assignment. We don't really know if the job was too much for him, since he died before he was able to complete it. It seems to me the only thing we can say with certainty is that Mr. Holbrooke simply ran out of time.

To those who have made nasty and malicious comments about his passing, you simply demonstrate your own self-importance and inability to civilly disagree with people who don't fall in lock step with your ideas--if, in fact, you have any ideas--an unfortunate and growing perversion in today's society.

How much did you really know about Mr. Holbrooke and what he did in diplomatic career? How much did you really investigate before you launched your vitriol from the warm safety of your poisoned keyboard? Not much, I suspect. And your comments are worth just that--not much.

Posted by: carouzer | December 14, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Wow! This guy is the biggest example of left wing government not working!!

Anyone with Vietnam, Iranian Embassy takeover, Bosnia(U.S troops still there after 15 years), and Afghanistan(4 more years just added on), on their resume is a loser of the highest order!!

Posted by: jjcrocket13 | December 14, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

It is dramatically provocative that Amb Holbrooke's last words were
supposedly "end the war in Afghanistan"....I hope someone will listen to his last wish seriousely.....

Posted by: JerryOlek | December 14, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Thank you David Ignatius for a 'nice' posting. Evidently, the commenters on this site are way too partisan to realize that it takes many many different people to achieve diplomacy in the world. Of course, it seems that many commenters believe that they could ALWAYS do it better and belittle those who actually DO THE JOB as 'partisan hacks' 'elitist' 'sponge' etc. Richard Holbrooke was a remarkable man, warts and all, and will be missed by the GLOBAL community even if 'posters' aren't able to discern a bigger picture.

Posted by: Mego1 | December 14, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

The last sentence in the main post here is phrased badly, probably as a result of deadline pressure. What I think Ignatius meant to say is that success in the position Holbrooke occupied and the policy he was asked by President Obama to advance were beyond even his formidable abilities.

It's a fair comment, and not a reflection on someone whose great service to the country could have been still greater had the Presidents he served wanted a strong Secretary of State.

Posted by: jbritt3 | December 14, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

There are some really disgusting comments here. Whether you agree with his politics or not he gave his entire adult life to the service of his country and with great success. There is no room in public discourse for spitting on a patriot's grave, be he or she liberal or conservative.

Posted by: douglasmarshall | December 14, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

We are told in the Corp (no rumor ) and in this article I was amazed to read .
Gen. James Jones USMC ( noted Bad Butt ) and Holdbrook all most went Toe to Toe several while calling each other terrible names quite often in front of many on lookers .
I was told directly Holdbrook called Gen Jones a Prick .
Jones smiled and said I would call you a prick as well but a Prick has a head .... Holdbrook laughed as did Gen Jones that time .

I must confess being a Former ReCon Marine officer .
I knew Gen Jones quite well .
Let's just put it this way simply as we say in USMC RECON Lingo .
Holdbrook should not let his Alligator mouth override his Hummingbird A** with Jones !
Gen. Jones loves Judo and Mixed Marshal arts along with his many years of training in "":Quick Kill "" at Q- CO !

Posted by: same15259 | December 14, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Let's be honest here even in his Death .

By which I mean, let me repeat the same ill-informed twaddle I said when he was alive. Honest, but not accurate. Even in Death.

Posted by: markfromark | December 14, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Richard Holbrooke's final words were: "“Stop This War In Afghanistan.” This is wise advice that should be followed NOW...we've lost our way in Afghanistan, Iraq, around the world, and at home.

Posted by: ptgrunner | December 14, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Geeze. You'd think Ignatius would give Holbrooke a break, especially so soon after his death. There will be plenty of time for criticism later. But for now, let's remember that he tried his best and died on the job. This is enough for me.

Posted by: Alon1 | December 14, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the problem was in what the country asked him to do over and over and over again in it misguided worship of misguided wars like misguided missiles firing at shadows in the dark...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | December 14, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Obama never listened to him and you all were silent.

Posted by: borntoraisehogs | December 14, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse


Wow! This guy is the biggest example of left wing government not working!!

Anyone with Vietnam, Iranian Embassy takeover, Bosnia(U.S troops still there after 15 years), and Afghanistan(4 more years just added on), on their resume is a loser of the highest order!!

Posted by: jjcrocket13 | December 14, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Yeah...like that guy who skated out of the National Guard, skipped Nam, invaded Iraq to catch Al Queda and then lost, lost in Afghanistan...what was trhat leftist's name again?

Oh yeah. W.

Posted by: Bridge3263 | December 14, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse


Wow! This guy is the biggest example of left wing government not working!!

Anyone with Vietnam, Iranian Embassy takeover, Bosnia(U.S troops still there after 15 years), and Afghanistan(4 more years just added on), on their resume is a loser of the highest order!!

Posted by: jjcrocket13 | December 14, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Yeah...like that guy who skated out of the National Guard, skipped Nam, invaded Iraq to catch Al Queda and then lost, lost in Afghanistan...what was trhat leftist's name again?

Oh yeah. W.
***************************
You Hypocrite !
Bush served his official Time in fact doing his official 'Officer Hours in 5.6 years not Seven ... That is amazing .
In fact his scores on Flight time were outstanding .
Look them up and the Commanding CO.s Comments on him .
Your far left Hero Dan Rather lies about a month before the election on Bush Military discharge (4 PAGES HAD 137 NONE MILITARY ERRORS )
Ironically Clinton never served a day and not reporting when ordered to in Little rock three different times ... Not to mention standing on the Steps of Parliament in Moscow protesting the war...
Russia loved that since The left here was the Back Bone of the Communist in NAM .

Need we forget Liberals here supported the Communist alone with Marxist paid for Answer Up on all of our College Campus's .
Dan Rather never mentioned any time ever Clinton evading the Draft especially a month before a national election .
No one wants to Die but I served my time in Nam killing my possible baseball career since I was a High School All American .
I see you a Saul Alinsky student was was your Boy Obama already the worse President ever .

Posted by: same15259 | December 14, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Wow! This guy is the biggest example of left wing government not working!!

Anyone with Vietnam, Iranian Embassy takeover, Bosnia(U.S troops still there after 15 years), and Afghanistan(4 more years just added on), on their resume is a loser of the highest order!!

Posted by: jjcrocket13 | December 14, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Yeah...like that guy who skated out of the National Guard, skipped Nam, invaded Iraq to catch Al Queda and then lost, lost in Afghanistan...what was trhat leftist's name again?

Oh yeah. W.
***************************
You Hypocrite !
Bush served his official Time in fact doing his official 'Officer Hours in 5.6 years not Seven ... That is amazing .
In fact his scores on Flight time were outstanding .
Look them up and the Commanding CO.s Comments on him .
Your far left Hero Dan Rather lies about a month before the election on Bush Military discharge (4 PAGES HAD 137 NONE MILITARY ERRORS )
Ironically Clinton never served a day and not reporting when ordered to in Little rock three different times ... Not to mention standing on the Steps of Parliament in Moscow protesting the war...
Russia loved that since The left here was the Back Bone of the Communist in NAM .

Need we forget Liberals here supported the Communist along with Marxist paid for Answer Up on all of our College Campus's .
Dan Rather never mentioned any time ever Clinton evading the Draft especially a month before a national election .
No one wants to Die but I served my time in Nam killing my possible baseball career since I was a High School All American .
I see you a Saul Alinsky student was was your Boy Obama already the worse President ever .

Posted by: same15259 | December 14, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

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