Some reflections on Richard Holbrooke, and a contrast with Kissinger

Update: the Washington Post has "clarified" its earlier report on Richard Holbrooke’s last words. Read it here.

The accolades are rolling in for Richard Holbrooke, the top U.S. diplomat, Clinton confidante and broker of the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. Holbrooke died on Sunday at the age of 69.

In the obituaries, I was struck by one point made by numerous writers: Holbrooke, a hard driving, intensely focused and totally committed diplomat and a man of intimidating intelligence, was not afraid to stand up to presidents – reportedly the reason he didn’t get the job of Secretary of State under Bill Clinton.

Contrast that, if you will, with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose comments to Richard Nixon about the plight of Soviet Jews, revealed in a new release of White House tapes last week, speak for themselves.

Holbrooke, for all his vast experience as a senior U.S. diplomat, had little to do with the Middle East conflict. He was Jewish, but a longtime Jewish activist here said “he didn’t wear his Judaism on his sleeve. He wasn’t comfortable talking about it, but he was proud of it.”

Holbrooke told others that his mother left Germany in 1933, shortly after the Nazi takeover – and that the first time she returned was in 1993, when he went to Germany as U.S. ambassador.

And, in a story that curiously echos the Jewish saga of former secretary of State Madeline Albright, his wife, journalist Kati Marton, learned that her parents were Jewish only late in life.

Finally, the stories about his death should have ominous meaning for his bosses in the Obama administration.

Today the Washington Post revealed that Holbrooke’s last words were “you’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

That’s particularly significant, given that he was Secreatry of State Hillary Clinton’ special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama inherited an Afghanistan war that was going badly, but he made it his own with a troop “surge” that may not be working well enough to bring about an end to America’s longest war anytime soon. The fact that the last words of his own top envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan were a plea for an end to the conflict should serve as a stark warning to an administration that could see all of its other priorities swept aside by a fruitless war with no exit strategy.

Holbrooke was honored by a number of Jewish groups over the years, and this week several top Jewish leaders spoke about his legacy.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement  that Holbrooke was "instrumental in helping correct Israel’s anomalous status as the only UN member state ineligible to vie for a seat on the Security Council" and said his group had a "close relationship" with him when he was ambassador to Germany and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

ADL director Abe Foxman said "On a number of occasions, Mr. Holbrooke addressed ADL audiences and always impressed us with his incomparable knowledge of issues and eagerness for practical, workable solutions to international problems."

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said in a statement "Richard Holbrooke was a giant of diplomacy and a trusted voice for me and many other Members of Congress who valued his counsel. Our nation owes him a debt of gratitude for his many years of service."


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.