Holbrooke Crafted 1995's Bosnia Peace Accords

Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke died Monday at the age of 69. He was one of America's most colorful and energetic diplomats, serving in Asia, Europe and South Asia. Praised for his toughness and creativity, he also was seen as arrogant and brash. Those qualities contributed to his success in the former Yugoslavia, where he was the principal architect of the 1995 Bosnia peace accords.

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DON GONYEA, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're looking back, this morning, at the career of Richard Holbrooke. Diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan were the last assignments of a colorful career. Before that, he negotiated an end to the war in Bosnia. A war that NPR's Tom Gjelten covered.

Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was Richard Holbrooke like, the diplomat who died last night at age 69?

GJELTEN: You know, Steve, in a tribute last night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Richard Holbrooke the consummate diplomat. But the truth is he was not always all the polite in dealing with foreign leaders. In fact, he was just as well known for being abrasive. His specialty was in one aspect of diplomacy - peace negotiating - and the tougher the characters, the more he enjoyed the challenge of dealing with them.

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (U.S. diplomat): They will do what they have to do in whatever they think is their own interest. Negotiations themselves are a little bit like jazz. You improvise on a theme and you move towards a goal.

GJELTEN: That was Holbrooke in 1998, discussing his orchestration of the Bosnia peace accords, agreed in Dayton, Ohio. The ultra-dignified Secretary of State Warren Christopher stepped in at the end, but mostly it was Holbrooke's achievement. And he pulled it off by being a bully one day, a charmer the next - improving as necessary.

He was dealing with three stubborn leaders - the presidents of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia - and each of them encountered Holbrooke's legendary temper.

Mr. HOLBROOKE: You mean the allegation that I yell a lot?

GJELTEN: Yeah.

Mr. HOLBROOKE: Listen, at times in Dayton, I played the good guy and Warren Christopher yelled.

GJELTEN: In that 1996 interview, I was asking Holbrooke if being abrasive, yelling at people, was part of his negotiating style. He was quick to point out that most of his career had been spent in Asia, and there he had a different reputation.

Mr. HOLBROOKE: Nobody ever said I yelled or screamed. Because you don't yell and scream when you're with Deng Xiaoping.

GJELTEN: Deng Xiaoping was the leader of China in the 1980s and '90s. Nor, Holbrooke told me, would you yell in Korea - or in any of the Asian capitals.

Mr. HOLBROOKE: Maybe a little bit in Manila, but not in Japan or Seoul or Beijing. You have to match your method to the moment and your style to the situation. The Balkans is an area of very tough tribal mountain people and you have to deal with it in an appropriate manner.

GJELTEN: And Richard Holbrooke knew how to deal with it. The Bosnia peace agreement, known as the Dayton accord, brought an end to a bloody conflict that cost the lives of nearly 100,000 people, most of them civilian. It was, without a doubt, Holbrooke's proudest accomplishment and he hoped - and expected - it would be an achievement history would remember. Here he was, speaking on the first anniversary of the Dayton accord.

Mr. HOLBROOKE: Last week I was high on the Himalayas, in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, where the King of Bhutan wanted to talk about Dayton. Everyone knows about Dayton. The word is now synonymous with a certain approach to peace. The Irish and the Greek and Turkish Cypriots have talked about having a Dayton. And everyone knows what it means.

GJELTEN: But, Steve, that was 14 years ago. I wonder how many people at this point do remember that peace agreement and what it meant at the time or that Richard Holbrooke was largely responsible for it.

He did go on, Steve, to serve effectively as ambassador to the United Nations and finally as envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But I have no doubt that peace in Bosnia was the achievement for which he'd want to be remembered.

INSKEEP: Well, why do you think it would be, Tom Gjelten, that in his final assignment, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he would not have achieved the same level of success?

GJELTEN: A couple of things, Steve. One is that though he served many years in Asia, I think he was most comfortable in Europe. His parents were immigrants from Germany and from Poland. His wife, the writer Kati Marton, was born and raised in Hungary. For both of them, war in Europe was something that resonated deeply.

The other thing is, as Holbrooke himself said, different situations call for different styles. He once pointed out that the people of the former Yugoslavia had lived a long time under externally imposed leadership and responded well to external pressure. If there was one thing he was good at it was applying pressure.

South Asia, on the other hand, has resisted outside pressure. A different case entirely.

INSKEEP: Well, it was a specially created job that he had - Afghanistan and Pakistan...

GJELTEN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...envoy for those two countries. Is anybody else going to fill that job now?

GJELTEN: No word about that yet, Steve. And actually, I would be surprised if anyone did try to step in right now.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten on the late Richard Holbrooke.

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