Holbrooke, Both Brash And Charming, Was 'Giant' Of Diplomacy World leaders paused to remember Richard Holbrooke as the consummate diplomat who could "stare down dictators" and who served five different presidential administrations in every corner of the globe.
NPR logo Holbrooke's Style Of Diplomacy Both Brash, Charming

Holbrooke's Style Of Diplomacy Both Brash, Charming

Richard Holbrooke, who died at 69, began his diplomatic work as a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in 1962 and ended it serving as the President's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP hide caption

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Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

World leaders paused Tuesday to pay tribute to Richard Holbrooke as a tough U.S. diplomat who forged a historic deal to end Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II and sought to bring stability to war-torn Afghanistan.

Holbrooke's death Monday came almost 15 years to the day after the Dec. 14, 1995, signing of the Dayton Agreement, the peace treaty that ended the Balkans War and that bears his indelible imprint.

Even Holbrooke's main opponent in the three-year conflict, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, expressed "sadness and regret" over the diplomat's unexpected passing following surgery for a tear in his aorta. Karadzic, who is on trial for war crimes, had hoped to call Holbrooke to testify at his trial.

President Obama praised Holbrooke as "a true giant of American foreign policy" and paid homage to his crisis expert as "a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country and pursuit of peace."

The consummate diplomat could "stare down dictators and stand up for America's interests," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

Holbrooke was handed many difficult assignments over a career that spanned continents and decades. He began his diplomatic work as a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in 1962 and ended it serving as the President's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He served five different presidential administrations in every corner of the globe.

Holbrooke will be remembered for his forceful personality. His formidable blistering rage, his command of the facts, his brilliance, wit and skill amazed and at times intimidated both friends and opponents at the negotiating table. But it was his diplomatic service in the former Yugoslavia for which he may be best remembered.

At the Dayton talks, Holbrooke earned the nickname "The Bulldozer" after he bullied warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims to agree to end the war in the Balkans with sometimes risky diplomatic overtures. He joked about the moniker in a 1996 interview with NPR, recalling that "at times in Dayton, I played the good guy and Warren Christopher yelled," referring to President Clinton's famously soft-spoken secretary of state.

Holbrooke said the situation often warranted a hard-nosed approach. "The Balkans is an area of very tough, tribal mountain people. And you have to deal with it in an appropriate manner."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who served as an envoy to Bosnia in the early 1990s, said Holbrooke's manner won him many close friends but also a number of enemies.

"Maybe he was modern diplomacy's proof that if you want to make an omelet, you have to beat some eggs. When he knew what he wanted — and that was usually the case — he was a remarkable fighter," Bildt wrote in a blog post.

Holbrooke, he added, was "truly a giant among diplomats of our time," and one of the best and the brightest."

Arriving for a meeting Tuesday in Brussels, U.K. Minister for Europe David Lidington credited Holbrooke for helping "to save lives and bring peace to a part of our continent wracked by civil war and bitter conflict.

"All Europeans are in his debt," Lidington said.

Not all Bosnians admired Holbrooke's efforts to achieve peace, arguing that the multiethnic state he set up as part of the Dayton peace process had proven too unwieldy for effective governance.

"He was instrumental in bringing peace to Bosnia — an unjust peace, but still a peace," said Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia's wartime foreign minister who participated in the Dayton negotiations.

Karadzic, who faces genocide charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, issued a statement through his lawyer saying he had been hoping to use Holbrooke as a witness.

After his surprise arrest on a Belgrade bus in 2008, Karadzic fought to have the case against him thrown out by claiming Holbrooke granted him immunity from prosecution in exchange for the Bosnian Serb leader dropping out of public life.

Holbrooke denied ever having cut such a deal, and judges rejected the claim, saying that even if it existed, the deal would not be binding on the U.N. court.

In Kosovo, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said he has proposed naming a square after Holbrooke in the capital of Pristina for his role in helping the province gain independence from Serbia.

Holbrooke was clearly proud of the Dayton Agreement. On the first anniversary of the peace pact, he said that wherever he traveled, "everyone wants to know about Dayton. The word is now synonymous with a certain approach to peace."

But his brash style was less successful in Afghanistan, leading to many confrontations with President Hamid Karzai, which had a ripple effect in diplomatic circles in Kabul.

Aides said Karzai considered the U.S. envoy ignorant of Afghan culture and society. Perhaps as a result, Holbrooke played a less visible role in Afghanistan, with Sen. John Kerry taking the main role in convincing Karzai to agree to a runoff election in 2009.

Karzai nonetheless praised Holbrooke, calling his death "a big loss for the American people."

In neighboring Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari said: "His services will be long remembered. The best tribute to him is to reiterate our resolve to root out extremism and usher in peace."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday that as Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan, Holbrooke realized "that we sometimes have to defend our security by facing conflicts in distant places."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the world should be grateful to Holbrooke for his contribution to the international strategy in Afghanistan.

"We regret with all our heart that he will not be able to witness the success of the new strategy," Westerwelle said in Brussels.

With reporting from NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul, Tom Gjelten, Michele Kelemen and J.J. Sutherland, and from Teri Schultz in Brussels and Larry Miller in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.