A late night discussion with Richard Holbrooke remembered

14/12/2010 by

It was summer of 2003. The setting was the island of Kos, a stone’s throw from the Turkish coast. Richard Holbrooke was participating at that year’s Symi Symposium organised by George Papandreou, then Greece’s Foreign Minister, currently Prime Minister. Though not a participant in that symposium (which also featured notables like Bill Clinton, Segolen Royal and Joseph Stilglitz), I found myself sitting on a veranda, late one night, opposite Holbrooke. Apparently, he was staying up on the off chance that Bill Clinton might drop in to have a chat with him. In the end, Clinton was otherwise engaged and so I had the privilege of an hour long conversation with Richard Holbrooke. Hearing of his death brought it all back.

The one memory I have of that conversation was Holbrooke’s overflowing frustration with the Bush administration. He was livid. Soon after reluctantly entering into a conversation with a total stranger who just happened to be sitting in front of him (me, that is), he let his frustration loose. At first he berated Bush for what he had done to the US diplomatic ‘capital’, as he put it. He railed against the Republicans’ treatment of the dedicated diplomats in the State Department. Then, he lashed out against the administration’s persecution of the Iraq war. For many minutes he went on and on about the folly of Bush and Cheney, the damage that escapade was inflicting upon US interests, the ineptitude of the planning and of the execution and, lastly, the enormous strain that Iraq was putting on international relations, in particular US’ relations with Europe (by which he meant France and, particularly, Germany).

After listening to him carefully and enthusiastically (after all, it is a rare joy to be so close to the horse’s mouth, especially when the latter is energised and wants to talk and talk), I took my chances. With some trepidation (for Holbrooke was a formidable presence, even in his shorts and awful hotel slippers), I challenged him. My point was something like this: Correct me if I am wrong but would it not be right to say that your criticism of the Bush war against Iraq is a little rich coming from a man who cut his teeth on the State Department’s Indonesia desk (nb. at the time of US complicity in the invasion of East Timor, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths)? From someone who, more recently, was part of an administration that started a war in the middle of Europe? Did you not pave the ground to Bush’s Iraq invasion by bombing Yugoslavia and thus tearing up the UN charter? While others can criticise Bush for invading Iraq on humanitarian grounds and in defence of international law, can you?

For the first, and last time, Holbrooke smiled. It was, I think, a genuine smile. He leant over slightly toward me, with a glass of sparkling water in his left hand, and in a low, confident voice said: I bombed Yugoslavia. I started a war in the heart of Europe. And you know what? I carried with me the Europeans. All of them. On side. Now, compare this with the current mob. They attacked the world’s worst ruffian, a mass killer that no one likes. And still they managed to lose the French and the Germans. Do you understand what I am saying?

Thrilled with this disarmingly honest, but also poignant, answer, I retorted: But what if this is precisely why they invaded? What if Bush and Cheney wanted to alienate the French and the Germans? At that point, Holbrooke looked rather sad. “This is what I fear the most”, he said, got up and shuffled back in his white slippers to his bungalow.

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