A few hours before Richard Holbrooke’s death last Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of America’s top diplomats gathered at the State Department for a Christmas party that he was “practically synonymous with American foreign policy.” Her assessment is correct: Richard Holbrooke’s career embodies some of the least attractive traits of contemporary American diplomacy.
As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Jimmy Carter, Holbrooke was instrumental in securing continued U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. In 1997 he authorized arms deliveries to Indonesia in violation of the supposed U.S. arms embargo against Suharto’s regime. It was during this period the suppression of the Christian Timorese by the Muslim Indonesians reached genocidal levels, killing 200,000 people or about a third of the island’s population. Holbrooke’s 1997 response to a reporter’s question about the tragedy to which he had directly contributed was illustrative of his character and style: “I want to stress I am not remotely interested in getting involved in an argument over the actual number of people killed. People were killed and that always is a tragedy but what is at issue is the actual situation in Timor today… [As for the numbers of victims] … we are never going to know anyway. “
True to form, Holbrooke lied to Congress in 1979 that the famine in East Timor – caused by the Indonesian army’s scorched-earth campaign – was a belated consequence of Portuguese colonial misrule. Over two decades later, in a lavish tribute to the diplomatic skill of his friend Paul Wolfowitz – who was the US ambassador to Indonesia at that time – Holbrooke boasted how “Paul and I have been in frequent touch to make sure that we keep East Timor out of the  presidential campaign, where it would do no good to American or Indonesian interests.”
Far from “bringing peace to Bosnia” at Dayton in 1995, Holbrooke presided over the imposition of a package broadly similar to the 1992 Lisbon Plan brokered by the European Union – the deal which could have avoided the war altogether but which was deliberately torpedoed from Washington. The chief outcome of the Bosnian war was a NATO transformed into a tool of U.S. hegemony, and the renewal of American dominance in European affairs to an extent not seen since Kennedy. The settlement at Dayton was not unlike a plausible compromise that would have been reached much earlier had America remained on the sidelines; but the meaning of Dayton was evident from Holbrooke’s boast, a year later, “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.”
As special representative to Cyprus in 1997, Holbrooke irritated the Europeans by his strident advocacy of Turkey’s membership in the European Union. His bias in favor of Muslim Turks against Christian Greeks in the divided island reflected a consistent bipartisan trend in U.S. foreign policy making. Holbrooke was not the creator of that trend, but he was its enthusiastic supporter – from Indonesia to Bosnia, from Cyprus to Kosovo.
In 1998 Holbrooke was back in the Balkans, preparing the ground for Clinton’s Kosovo war against Serbia. On June 24 of that year he met with the KLA commander Gani Shehu in the village of Junik, near the Yugoslav-Albanian border, dutifully taking his shoes off like a good dhimmi. He promised American support for the the KLA campaign of violence against the Serbs. Earlier that year Clinton’s Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard correctly characterized the KLA as a terrorist organization, but Holbrooke’s visit signified a change of policy and directly led to Racak, Rambouillet, NATO bombing, and Kosovo’s transformation into the Jihadist mafia state that it is today.
The most eloquent epitaphs are crafted while the person is still alive. Borrowing a page out of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic manual, Vice President Joe Biden called him “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.” Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, until last March the top UN official in Afghanistan, said five weeks ago of Holbrooke’s Afghan performance, “This is not the Balkans, where you can bully people into accepting a solution.” Eide added that the U.S. Special Envoy did not fully grasp “the complexity of the Afghan political scene.”
Holbrooke’s grasp of the complexities was illustrated by his calling the Serbs “murderous assholes” and by referring to Radovan Karadzic as the Osama Bin Laden of Europe. He was “synonymous with American foreign policy,” indeed: he was a coarse, arrogant bully who understood diplomacy as the art of imposing one’s will at the point of a gun. Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was a bad man advocating and implementing bad policies.
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