Richard Holbrooke, who died unexpectedly this week after suffering a tear in his aorta, was a celebrity diplomat whose name was known to everyone who followed politics and foreign policy. He was unique. Not only in the sense that "celebrity" and "diplomat" rarely go together but that he managed to attain such prominence in American foreign policy without ever reaching the rank of secretary of state or national security adviser. He was deeply involved with every Democratic president and in every presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter's, a fixture to such an extent that his involvement in Barack Obama's administration was taken as a given, the only question being the exact nature of the role. The line in Hillary Clinton's official statement after his passing -- that he was "one of a kind -- a true statesman" -- has the distinct virtue of being true.
Indeed, in some ways Holbrooke seems almost like the last statesman, a figure plucked from a time when diplomacy really mattered and America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats rather than generals. But no one who was so deeply involved in formulating and articulating the Democratic Party's foreign-policy vision for so long could be immune to its pathologies.
Early in his career, Holbrooke worked in Vietnam, and then in Washington on Vietnam-related issues. He was one of the primary drafters of the so-called Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War and was part of the American delegation to the failed 1968 Peace Talks. During the Carter administration, he was assistant secretary of state for East Asia and oversaw the successful normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China. This was a tricky move that involved ditching diplomatic relations with Taiwan while supporting its de facto independence and maintaining America's relationships with South Korea and Japan, something that, like the other successes of the Carter administration, is normally overlooked by pundits. Together with the Democrats, he wandered through the political wilderness in the 1980s. When Bill Clinton was elected, he became ambassador to Germany and assistant secretary of state for Europe, where he was an integral part of the two great successes of Clinton-era foreign policy -- the expansion of NATO and the resolution of the conflict in Bosnia.
It's for this last accomplishment that Holbrooke is and will ever be best known. Clearly, no one man is responsible for the circumstances that brought about the Dayton Accords, but he was the key player -- the convener, the cajoler-in-chief, the one who closed the gap between circumstances in which peace was possible and the reality of a peace agreement.
Unfortunately, like many people with a personal involvement in Balkans policy in the 1990s, Holbrooke seemed to have learned some bad lessons. As with Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and many, many others, he seems to have come away from Bosnia and Kosovo with a newfound, generalized optimism about the possibility of the military as a force for good in the world. Like most of his comrades, he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even as the difficult work of Afghanistan remained undone. Somewhat ironically, he finished his career in Afghanistan as the Obama administration's key civilian envoy charged with helping to clean up the mess created by years of earlier neglect.
As best one could tell, it hasn't gone very well, and not necessarily because of any flaws in the men leading the effort on the American side. Dayton aside, the fact of the matter is that it's not possible as a rule for foreign diplomats to force foreigners to change their political arrangements. By the time the Obama administration arrived on the scene, the Taliban had already reasserted itself, and Hamid Karzai and a multitude of other local elites had entrenched themselves. Ominously, Holbrooke's last words, uttered to his Pakistani-American doctor, were "you've got to end this war in Afghanistan."
One shouldn't take words uttered in a desperate and confusing situation too seriously, but this doesn't inspire a ton of confidence in the future of American foreign policy there. More disturbing -- because it's presumably better considered -- is Gen. David Petraeus' decision to pen a postmortem homage to Holbrooke that includes the line "I used to note to him and to various audiences, with affection and respect, that he was my 'diplomatic wingman.'"
The affection and respect Petraeus expressed were doubtlessly both genuine, but the sentiment is mistaken. It reverses the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities -- generals and their troops are supposed to serve political objectives outlined by civilians, not view civilians as adjuncts to military campaigns. Holbrooke, though, likely would not have been offended. When told he was to be Petraeus' civilian counterpart in the region, he told Der Spiegel that he laughed in response: "He has more airplanes than I have telephones."
That's funny, true, and a big problem for American foreign policy. And with America losing its most famous diplomat -- really its only famous diplomat -- the situation is not improving.