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‘Statesman’ Holbrooke Remembered as Major Afghan Challenges Loom

December 14, 2010 at 4:00 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was praised today as one of a kind. His death leaves the Obama administration with a gap as it grapples with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Margaret Warner chronicles Holbrooke’s long public service.

MARGARET WARNER: The president’s Afghan war council gathered today at the White House at another crucial decision point in the decade-long war. But they met without one of the policy’s main drivers, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Holbrooke’s boss and longtime friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remembered him this afternoon.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The word that keeps being said over and over again is “statesman.” It’s a word that we don’t use much anymore, but Richard embodied it, a man who loved our country and dedicated his life to serving, not only our people, but the cause of peace, a diplomat who used every tool in the toolbox, and someone who accomplished so much on behalf of so many.

MARGARET WARNER: The hard-charging diplomat died last night in Washington after suffering a torn aorta on Friday. Tens of hours of surgery over several days could not save him. His sudden death at age 69 brought tributes from around the globe.

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TONY BLAIR, former British prime minister: There will be a lot of people in many different parts of the world who are going to miss him and look back on what he did with a lot of gratitude.

CARL BILDT, Swedish foreign minister: A critical friend of Europe and a close friend of mine. The world is a lesser place without him.

MARGARET WARNER: Just hours before Holbrooke died, President Obama extolled him at a White House diplomatic reception.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America is more secure and the world is a safer place because of the work of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

MARGARET WARNER: Holbrooke’s portfolio dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan was perhaps the most difficult assignment of a near half-century career that took him from Vietnam’s wide deltas in the 1960s to the bloody Balkans in the 1990s.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: On paper, we have peace. To make it work is our next and our greatest challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: And most recently to the mountains and deep divides of South Asia.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: People who demand that the foreign troops leave Afghanistan before they talk about peace are actually asking for surrender.

MARGARET WARNER: He was born in New York in 1941 to European Jewish parents who had fled Nazi-era Germany. After graduating from Brown, Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service, posted first to Vietnam, then to the Vietnam policy team in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, and finally as a junior member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks.

He often said it was the defining experience of his public life. Holbrooke went on to serve in high posts in three Democratic administrations, including assistant secretary of State for President Carter, and ambassador to Germany, assistant secretary of State and United Nations ambassador for President Clinton.

Whether dealing overseas or in Washington, Holbrooke used his intellect and his ego to bully, to charm, to cajole. His persona bore fruit when he pushed three warring nations to end the Bosnia conflict. The 1995 Dayton peace accord was the crowning achievement of his career.

The day the deal was announced, in one of his dozens of NewsHour appearances over the years, Holbrooke spoke to Elizabeth Farnsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe for us, if you can, those last few hours, what you were — the toughest thing you were negotiating about and how you resolved it.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: By the last few hours, the issues were very small in relationship to what had been achieved — 99 percent, more than 99 percent, was finished.

But there’s a question at the end of a negotiation like this, not of substance, but of political will. Do you pick up the pen and put your initials on a piece of paper, or do you keep seeking more and more and more, so you never get there? And Camp David in 1978, the war between Israel and Egypt had been five years old, and it still was difficult. Here, we were trying to do the same thing in the middle of a war with three countries, instead of two. It was tough.

MARGARET WARNER: Even when not in office, working as an editor or investment banker, Holbrooke stayed engaged in all manner of global issues with op-eds and public appearances.

Here in 1985, he spoke with Jim Lehrer about Vietnam’s decision to release the remains of missing American servicemen.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: They are now isolated in an increasingly prosperous Southeast Asia. And all they have got left among very few other chips are the remains of some Americans who died in Indochina. With the greatest of cynicism, they have been doling these remains out for years.

MARGARET WARNER: Holbrooke was asked if he believed that living Americans were still being held prisoner there.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I think that it is a grave disservice to Americans to be led to believe that Americans who fought in Indochina are still alive today and will return to the United States.

JIM LEHRER: You just don’t — you just don’t believe that?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I’m sorry. I wish that I could say otherwise, but I have seen so many people have too many false hopes. And the recent spate of movies in this regard only exacerbate the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: And as U.N. ambassador in 2000, Holbrooke pushed the body to focus on the misery and global threat posed by AIDS.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The level of the AIDS crisis, its potential to destroy economic achievement, undermine social stability, and create more political uncertainty, and the inability of the rest of the world to contain it on only one continent, because it can’t be sealed off in Africa — it’s already spreading elsewhere in the world, particularly the subcontinent of India and Pakistan — is so enormous.

MARGARET WARNER: Just two weeks after Sept. 11, Holbrooke predicted the struggle against the perpetrators and their ideology would be a long one.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Some of these states are sheltering the terrorists without actively organizing the terrorism. That would appear to be the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They’re giving Osama bin Laden and his network shelter. But Osama bin Laden is running his own network. If and when Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are removed, the problem will not disappear.

MARGARET WARNER: Indeed, it had not. And, by early 2009, Holbrooke, now appointed to head the diplomatic effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke of the challenges facing the Obama administration as it tried to chart a new way forward there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying it’s too early at this point for the Obama administration to define how it sees victory in Afghanistan?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, first of all, the victory, as defined in purely military terms, is not achievable. And I cannot stress that too highly. I think it will more difficult than Iraq. It’s already longer than Iraq. It’s the second-longest military engagement in American history. And no one should expect a quick success here.

MARGARET WARNER: Five weeks later, Holbrooke and General David Petraeus explained the president’s new dual focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The critical issue here is to integrate our Afghanistan policy and our Pakistan policy, which have essentially been stovepiped, to recognize that success in Afghanistan is not possible unless Western Pakistan, where — which is the current heart of the crisis, is brought under control.

MARGARET WARNER: In his last interview with the NewsHour in late October, Holbrooke was asked whether it was time to get tougher with Pakistan’s unwillingness to attack terrorist havens in its territory.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: We have to work with the Pakistanis. It’s very difficult at times. But one has to understand that it’s a sovereign country. I know, because I run into this when I go out on the street. The people come up to me and say, “We ought to tell the Pakistanis that they have to do X, or else.” Well, the correct answer is, “Or else what?”

We’re working with them to find the strategic overlap between our interests, which involve the defense of the homeland and elimination of people like al-Qaida, Pakistani interests and Afghan interests. It’s a very-complicated equation. But the Pakistanis are not being cut out. And we’re making progress.

MARGARET WARNER: As the Obama team now struggles to make enough progress, they will have to do it without with the energy and passion of Richard Holbrooke.