Richard Holbrooke dies at 69; diplomat

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of the most celebrated American diplomats of the last half-century, died Monday, the State Department said. He was 69.

Holbrooke, who in 1995 brokered the deal that ended the Bosnian war, died at George Washington University Hospital after having surgery to repair a tear in his aorta.

A 6-foot-2, barrel-chested man, he was renowned for his ruthless negotiating style, which came in handy when he stood up to Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic and brokered the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian conflict.

He was stricken Friday morning during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department and underwent more than 20 hours of surgery as doctors attempted to save his life.


In a statement shortly after his death was announced, Clinton described Holbrooke as “one of America’s fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants.”

President Obama, in a statement, called Holbrooke a “true giant of American foreign policy, who has made America stronger, safer and more respected.”

With the White House about to complete a long-awaited review of U.S. policy on the war in Afghanistan, the State Department announced hours before Holbrooke’s death that his post would be filled for the time being by his deputy, Frank Ruggiero. In contrast to Holbrooke’s hard-charging style, which earned him such nicknames as “the Bulldozer” and “Raging Bull,” Ruggiero is known as a low-key career diplomat; he was previously in charge of the civilian-military reconstruction teams in southern Afghanistan.

Holbrooke, who began his career as a junior Foreign Service officer in the Vietnam War and ended it helping lead the battle to overcome militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, shaped the narrative of U.S. diplomacy as an advisor to presidents, secretaries of State and Democratic presidential candidates.


Holbrooke served every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy, and was a contender to be secretary of State for two decades, though he never accomplished the goal. He was the only person to be assistant secretary of State for two regions — East Asia and Europe — and was also U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as well as ambassador to Germany.

In adding him to his administration on Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, President Obama praised Holbrooke as “one of the most talented diplomats of his generation.”

Holbrooke insisted that Afghanistan and Pakistan would be his last diplomatic mission. But despite his age, many who knew him had found that difficult to believe.

Holbrooke’s blunt style made him an effective diplomat but sometimes led to friction with those around him. In every administration in which he worked he had passionate fans and detractors. Every veteran U.S. diplomat has at least a few tales of Holbrooke, recounting his exploits and outsized personality and ego.


As special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke oversaw the dispatch of about 1,100 civilian officials to Afghanistan to try to help build the economy and strengthen the weak central government. His approach was to use large helpings of American aid to leverage change in officials and institutions. At the same time, he was not hesitant to complain about Afghan government corruption and ineffectiveness.

During his time in Kabul, he clashed with his U.S. colleagues and foreign leaders, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

In Kabul, it was said that he once made Karzai so angry that the Afghan president threw his lamb’s-wool hat at the American diplomat.

Top Democrats’ ambivalence about Holbrooke was clear in a statement from Vice President Joe Biden, as quoted in Bob Woodward’s 2010 book, “Obama’s Wars.”


Biden called Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.” However, Biden also said that Holbrooke might be the right choice to handle the top-priority Afghanistan-Pakistan situation for the White House.

Holbrooke spent about half of his career as an investment banker in New York, mostly during Republican administrations. Even then, he kept his hand in foreign policy, writing opinion pieces and advising Democratic candidates including former President Carter, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), now Obama’s secretary of State.

Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was born April 24, 1941, in New York City and raised in Scarsdale, N.Y. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Europe, and his father, a doctor, died when Holbrooke was a teenager. He attended Brown University and entered the Foreign Service after graduating in 1962.

Holbrooke’s talent was recognized early in the State Department. Columnist Walter Lippmann described him as one of the “young lords of the Mekong Delta” during the Vietnam War. Holbrooke wrote one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the secret government analysis of the origins of the Vietnam War that, once leaked, helped turn U.S. public opinion against the conflict. He was also assigned to the Paris peace talks.


In the early 1970s, Holbrooke took a job as a Peace Corps director in Morocco, then became managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine from 1972 to 1977. He returned to the State Department during the Carter administration, serving as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

He left the diplomatic realm for investment banking in the 1980s but returned after Bill Clinton was elected president, becoming ambassador to Germany, assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs and then ambassador to the United Nations.

Holbrooke’s diplomatic style was on full display in his interactions with Milosevic in 1995.

In the climactic moment of the war, Holbrooke flew to Belgrade to warn Milosevic that if he didn’t agree to a deal that would put foreign soldiers on Bosnian soil, he would be bombed by NATO.


As recounted by Louise Branson and Dusko Doder in their 1999 book “Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant,” Holbrooke told Milosevic, “Are you absolutely clear in your own mind what will happen when I get up and walk out of this palace that we’re now sitting in?” Holbrooke asked.

“You are going to bomb us,” replied the president with a coldness on his broad face.

“That’s right,” the diplomat said.

Holbrooke wrote two well-received books, including “To End a War,” his 1998 account of the Dayton negotiations. He also employed his own personal archivist to collect news stories chronicling his career.


Holbrooke returned to the private sector during the George W. Bush presidency. His writings and speeches offered a rolling critique of the Republican years that helped build the Democratic case for change and also advertised Holbrooke’s availability for a post in a new administration.

The Bush administration, he said, “has performed at a historically bad level. … I watch the administration’s performance with great chagrin and alarm.”

At the same time, he predicted in 2008 that there would be no easy way out of Afghanistan under Obama, forecasting that “the conflict … will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. … This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history.”

When Obama chose Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, great things were expected. But the appointment began a difficult period.


Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars,” reported that Holbrooke was losing faith with the mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2009, and that Obama had not warmed to him.

Holbrooke married his third wife, journalist Kati Marton, in 1995, and the couple became known for the parties they would throw in their Central Park West apartment for movie stars, world leaders, artists and journalists.

Besides his wife, Holbrooke is survived by two sons from his first marriage, David and Anthony.


Katherine Skiba in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.