Richard Holbrooke's 'tragic' brilliance

The late diplomat ended the Bosnian war, but his brashness and impatience kept him from achieving his lifelong dream of being secretary of state, says John Barry at Newsweek

Richard Holbrooke's efforts to become secretary of state "failed three times," says John Barry at Newsweek.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Today, the political world is fondly eulogizing Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who died yesterday of a torn aorta, as "one of the giants of American foreign policy," to use President Obama's phrase. In truth, that tribute overstates Holbrooke's legacy, says John Barry at Newsweek. Despite accolades for being the architect of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia, Holbrooke died a "disappointed man" who never achieved his dream of serving as secretary of state, thanks in part to his reputation as a "brash wunderkind." Holbrooke "will be remembered publicly as a glittering star," writes Barry. "Privately, he will likely be seen as a tragic example of what befalls a government servant who, however brilliant, is never quite trusted to be a team player." Here, an excerpt:

Holbrooke's position in the American foreign-policy establishment was a unique one — admired but never trusted with one of the top jobs. He died at 69 having failed to achieve his great ambition, which was to be secretary of state. His last assignment — as Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — was one long frustration. He was accomplishing nothing; he knew it, and he saw the military persuading Obama to edge deeper into what he had come to see as another unwinnable war, like Vietnam. Stunned colleagues wonder whether that frustration was a factor in his death. Holbrooke had been complaining for weeks how tired he felt—a deeply uncharacteristic admission by a man celebrated for his manic energy. His aorta had apparently been leaking for some time. Colleagues wonder whether the blood pressure of a deeply frustrated man may have contributed to the tear.

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