Dick the Builder
Why Holbrooke is a model for diplomats of an aspiring power.
What, I am occasionally asked, is so great about Richard Holbrooke? This is asked in Asia where what he his famous for in Europe – the Dayton accord that ended Serbia’s war with its minority provinces – doesn’t register more than fleetingly as a historical event.
Holbrooke, who died earlier this week from circulatory problems, was not an intellectual or a Kissinger-style geopolitical man. He wasn’t always on the ball about what was going on around the world. He wasn’t always a pleasant person – though this is going by second-hand accounts as he was unfailingly charming the several times I interacted with him. What Holbrooke had was enormous energy, an appetite for work and a willingness to take risks. In any interaction you could count on Holbrooke seamlessly taking over the microphone, dominating the podium and moving the agenda in a direction that he wanted.
He was what a diplomat for a great power should be: a person focused on getting things done.
Holbrooke was nicknamed “Bulldozer” in the Washington Beltway because of his willingness to trample down or brush aside anything that got in his way. This made him unpopular with fellow bureaucrats but a godsend for politicians and ministers who kept found policy initiatives entangled in a multi-agency red tape. Holbrooke was about Getting Things Done. He did worry about big picture trends – the Muslim world’s alienation from the West, how to get a global political consensus on climate change and the like. But he didn’t sweat the details. His métier was how to get to and finish the endgame. If Holbrooke was abrasive and brash, charming and genial, it was often a calculated move on his part. You couldn’t escape the impression when he was being friendly that he was being so, at least in part, because he believed this was the way to use you for some utilitarian, policy-oriented purpose.
But his fearlessness was what struck you the most. Diplomats, for the most part, are a diffident lot especially around journalists. They avoid debate, couch their language in inanities or insist on cast iron guarantees that everything is off the record. Not Holbrooke. Everything was out in the open as far he was concerned. Over the years he had, I think, realized that initiating debate, picking up ideas and insights, open source data mining if you wish, was far more useful than fretting about being quoted out of context or being accused of leaking a state secret. His rightly believed you built a career from results, not processes, that if you made an omelette there weren’t too many questions about how you broke the eggs along the way.
A few Wikileaks documents carried his conversations and I am confident he didn’t care two hoots.
In some four years of meetings, Holbrooke never remembered more than the first three letters of my name. That wasn’t a surprise. What was memorable was that he would make the attempt without blinking: no hesitation, no apology, no attempt at correction and, once he began using one garbled version of my name, a repeated use of this mutation throughout the day. Holbrooke knew that getting the name exactly right wasn’t the issue, it was the fact of recognition and remembering the issues we generally discussed. This was vintage Dick the Bulldozer. If he was going to be Dick the Builder, he had to damn the torpedos and go full speed ahead.
Indian diplomacy could do with more people like Holbrooke. New Delhi has a dearth of people who are prepared to take risks, prepared to tackle the knottiest of diplomatic problems and to fight tooth and nail within their own political system to get things done. Holbrooke was remarkably unfazed by failure. He volunteered to take on Afghanistan-Pakistan to win points with the newly-elected Barack Obama. He tried to run Hamid Karzai out of Kabul and failed. He tried to run Kashmir into the AfPak agenda and failed. But he would always get up, dust himself and head off to take on the next challenge. Like the cartoon character Bob the Builder, his response to everything was “Yes, we can.” Holbrooke knew he only had to succeed once and all else would be forgiven.
He never did get that chance. And given the recalcitrant nature of the AfPak conundrum he may never have found a tipping point. But it was never from a fear of trying. And it is exactly that combination of courage and calculation which an aspiring power like India should hope its envoys will increasingly emulate.