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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 10:26 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 10:26 | SYDNEY

Vale Richard Holbrooke

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14 December 2010 14:09

I was sad to hear that Richard Holbrooke has died. Holbrooke was one of the century's great diplomats. He served in Vietnam and worked on the Paris Peace Talks; advised LBJ from the White House; represented the US in Germany and at the UN; negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords; and worked for President Obama on Afghanistan-Pakistan.

I was lucky enough to interview Holbrooke in Washington this year for a book I am writing on presidential envoys. It proved impossible to get to him through the various official gatekeepers, so eventually I just emailed him at his presumed State Department email address. He responded immediately and enthusiastically.

In person, he was forceful, self-centred, charming and persuasive. He did not use his elbows on me but I had no doubt they would be sharp.

I was struck at the time that, although the Af-Pak file is big enough for any mortal, this was not the job with which Holbrooke thought he would end his career. There was a notable incongruity between the office knick-knacks which reminded Holbrooke's visitors of the centrality of his diplomatic career – the photographs from the Balkans, the framed notes from former presidents – and the location of his suite, in an outer corridor of Foggy Bottom. Holbrooke was an important player in the Obama Administration on perhaps its most difficult problem – but he was not a dominant figure.

Richard Holbrooke was a complex, difficult character, but I admired him. The highlight of his career was Dayton, which ended the Bosnian war and saved countless lives. Only a figure like Holbrooke could have stood up to Slobodan Milosevic and talked him down.

But not even Holbrooke could have brokered Dayton without the ability to have confidential conversations with his interlocutors. At a time when WikiLeaks is undermining diplomacy, it has taken the death of a legendary diplomat to show us why diplomacy matters.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan.