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Richard Holbrooke’s Great Legacy

December 14, 2010

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke meets with Pakistani NGO representatives and Punjab provincial government officials to discuss flood relief efforts and reconstruction plans in Multan, Pakistan, on September 16, 2010. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

The United States lost a great public servant yesterday. People know Holbrooke by his larger-than-life personality and his talent and accomplishments as a diplomat taking on the toughest assignments.

I have admired Richard Holbrooke from a distance as I leafed through his old Foreign Policy article, “The Machine that Fails,” in which he described the organizational deficiencies of the State Department during Vietnam. We studied his practice of running small and agile interagency teams as he did in the Balkans and, most recently, with Afghanistan, and we recommended that these teams be created throughout the government.

The approach Holbrooke took was not easy. In many cases, he ran up against entrenched institutional habits. In the Balkans, he worked closely with General Wesley Clark while the Pentagon chiefs saw their closeness as an affront to process. With Afghanistan, Holbrooke seemed to be up or down every month. The issue was incredibly complex, and the cast was crowded with many players. In a way, only someone with Holbrooke’s forcefulness could keep these US policies integrated and the people together. That is why he is such a loss to us.

P.J. Crowley tweeted about Holbrooke yesterday, “Richard Holbrooke’s legacy is a combined military, civilian, regional and international strategy, focused on a common objective.”  That legacy has been our mission. We hope to see the Holbrooke approach become a common practice to deal with the panoply of national security challenges the United States will face in the 21st century.


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