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Foreign Policy ‘Giant,’ Lifelong U.S. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke Dies at 69

Richard Holbrooke (center) in Georgia while he was special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Irakli Gedenidze/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 8:52 p.m. ET with Clinton remarks

Richard Holbrooke, who spent much of his career interfacing with troubled spots around the world, most recently serving as the Obama administration’s point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan, died Monday following surgery for a torn aorta at the age of 69.

Prior to the announcement of his death, President Obama spoke about Holbrooke at a holiday reception for the diplomatic corps at the State Department:

“Richard Holbrooke has been serving this nation with distinction for nearly 50 years — from a young foreign service officer in Vietnam to the architect of the accords that ended the slaughter in the Balkans, to advancing our regional efforts as our Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and countless crises and hot spots in between. He is simply one of the giants of American foreign policy.

“And as anyone who has ever worked with him knows — or had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him — Richard is relentless. He never stops. He never quits. Because he’s always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interests, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged.”

“Tonight America has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Monday evening, confirming his death.

A frequent guest on the NewsHour, Holbrooke’s latest appearance was in October following massive flooding and recovery efforts in Pakistan. He talked about Pakistani efforts to root out terrorist sanctuaries and the need to include the country in regional policies:

In February 2009, Holbrooke discussed the administration’s renewed focus on Afghanistan and President Obama’s commitment of tens of thousands of more U.S. troops.

A little later that year, he appeared on the NewsHour with Gen. David Petraeus to discuss the “increasingly perilous” — in President Obama’s words — situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the administration’s counterinsurgency mission.

Life of Diplomacy

Following his graduation from Brown University in 1962, Holbrooke entered the Foreign Service and spent six years in Vietnam as assistant to ambassadors and under-secretaries of State. His work also included stints as Peace Corps director in Morocco and managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

After helping President Carter during his election, he became the youngest assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and oversaw the normalization of relations with China.

In the 1990s, he served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and then assistant secretary for European and Canadian Affairs. He briefly left the government, becoming vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston, and special envoy to Cyprus and the Balkans.

In December 1999 as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Holbrooke spoke with Ray Suarez about monitoring Iraqi weapons and the Russian-Chechen conflict. Fresh off a tour of AIDS centers in 10 African countries, he spoke of how critical the epidemic was in the continent:

“I just want to stress to you that no problem that your program deals with, and you deal with all the large problems of the world, is any more alarming or more serious than this one. I have not seen anything that matches this for severity and importance.”

In the mid-1990s, Holbrooke had a lead role in the Dayton Peace Accord of 1995, which ended the four-year civil war in Bosnia. He reflected on the part he played in an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth:

“What I really found appalling about Bosnia on my first trips there as a private citizen and inexplicable was that it was people killing their neighbors. You’d go into a town, and there would be 10 houses, eight would be blown up, in the middle of it there would be a Serb house that wasn’t blown up. People came and killed each other just knowing who they were on ethnic basis. In Vietnam, it was an ideological struggle. It was brutal. More people died, but it didn’t have that personal quality.”

Holbrooke had his share of critics and gained a reputation for knocking heads of which he said:

“You have to match your method to the moment and your style to the substance and the situation. And in this negotiation, dealing with people who are liars and in some cases killers, dealing with people who are desperate, dealing with traditions, you just have to get very tough.”

Holbrooke is survived by his wife Kati Marton, an author and journalist.

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