Sunday, December 13, 2020

We’re going for broke

 ‘I don’t want to return to the shuttle, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Dayton, so we’re going to go for broke now. We’re going to be out of here in a week. That’s our plan, and I think it’s a very good one. If these guys want to make peace, they can do it in a week.’ This is from the diaries of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke who died 10 years ago today. It was written during an intense period of negotiations that led to the Dayton Peace Accords, the end of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As far as I can tell, Holbrooke’s diaries, both audio and written, have not been published. However, they have certainly been used for a 2015 documentary on the man, and for a widely applauded biography by George Packer.

Holbrooke was born in 1941, in New York City. His father was a doctor who had been born to Jewish parents in Poland. His mother, a potter, also came from a Jewish family which had fled Germany in the mid-1930s for Argentina before coming to New York. However, he was not brought up in the Jewish faith, rather he was taken to Quaker meetings. His father died when he was but 15, and he spent much time with a friend whose father, Dean Rusk, became President Kennedy’s Secretary of State in 1960. Holbrooke was educated at Scarsdale High School, Brown University and was later a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (leaving in 1970). He joined the Foreign Service in 1962, learnt Vietnamese and spent six years in Vietnam at first working with development programmes and then as an assistant to the ambassador. Back in Washington DC he worked with President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam team. 

Holbrooke served as Peace Corps director in Morocco from 1970 to 1972, and he then edited the quarterly magazine Foreign Policy until 1976. The following year he was called back to government when President Jimmy Carter appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. From 1981 to 1985, he was vice president of Public Strategies, a Washington consulting firm, as well as senior adviser to the New York investment firm Lehman Brothers. From 1985, he was managing director of Lehman Brothers - until 1993. Under President Bill Clinton he was ambassador to Germany (1993-1994) and assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs (1994-1995). In the latter role, he was the chief US negotiator between belligerent parties in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia leading up to the Dayton Accords. In 1996, he became vice chairman of Crédit Suisse First Boston, but the following year he was appointed special envoy to Cyprus, where he attempted to broker a settlement between Greece and Turkey. In 1998-1999, he was involved in trying to end the conflict between the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Holbrooke was appointed US ambassador to the United Nations in 1999. As such, he negotiated the settlement of a dispute concerning some $900 million in back dues owed to the UN. He left government in 2001 to serve as vice president of Perseus LLC, a private equity fund. He was Hilary Clinton’s lead foreign policy advisor during her 2008 campaign for president. When Barack Obama appointed her as Secretary of State, she wanted Holbrooke as her deputy but this was vetoed by Obama. Instead Holbrooke was named special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke married Larrine Sullivan in 1964, and they had two sons. He married twice more (Blythe Babyak, Kati Marton), and, between those marriages had a long-term relationship with Diane Sawyer - all three women were writers/journalists. He died on 13 December 2010. Further information is readily available online from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Guardian, Prospect, or The Washington Post.

Holbrooke seems to have kept diaries, written and audio, though I’ve not been able to track down any details of what diaries he left behind. He certainly kept audio diaries during some of his foreign missions. The New York Times has a long report on a 2015 documentary that features Holbrooke’s (last) audio diary, written in Afghanistan, focusing on his disagreements with Obama’s White House. He also kept an audio diary during time in the Balkans. This latter is referred to in Our Man - Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by the American journalist George Packer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) - which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks.

For example, the following extract from the book is annotated as being sourced from Holbrooke’s Bosnia audio diary 12 May 1994. ‘In the middle of May 1994, Holbrooke got a midnight phone call in Germany from Strobe Talbott, who had become deputy secretary of state. The assistant secretary for Europe, a Wall Street lawyers named Stephen Oxman, was a flop. The Europe bureau was leaderless while Bosnia continued to deteriorate and the question of NATO enlargement loomed. Talbott and Tom Donilon, Christopher’s chief of staff, were pushing Christopher to replace Oxman with Holbrooke.

“Look, Strobe,” Holbrooke said, “you’re asking me to go back to a rank I had seventeen years ago, in a situation where that job’s been diminished.” He said that he planned to leave government in a year for personal reasons - Kati - and until then he had unfinished business left in Germany.

“Well, one of the reasons we want you back is that even your detractors recognize you’ve done an extraordinary job in a short period of time.” Talbott went on. “I would like you to consider it because Christopher himself proposed you, and this suggests to me that he realizes you’re the best person available.”

This wasn’t true. Christopher was, as always, repelled by Holbrooke. “Christopher and I can work fine,” Holbrooke said. This wasn’t true, either, but Holbrooke tried hard to conceal what he really thought - that Christopher was too vain to risk making any mistakes in the job. “We’ve never had a cross word. This whole thing about problems between us IS one-sided. Strobe, he’s not qualified to be secretary of state, but he is, and it’s of national importance that we help him. The real problem is Tony, and you know it.” [. . .]’

Packer’s biography also references Holbrooke’s written diaries, especially with regard to the negotiations that led up to the Dayton accord. The following extract (specifically starting with ‘But at Packy’s’) is annotated as being sourced from Holbrooke’s diary 1 November 1995: ‘On the first night, Holbrooke took Milosevic to Packy’s Sport Bar & Grill in the Hope Hotel. Haris Silajdzic and Chris Hill were sitting at a table near a wall of wide-screen TVs. Silajdzic, the Bosnian prime minister, was a Sarajevo academic, just turned fifty, with a modern vision of multi-ethnic Bosnia, but he was moody, given to sullen glooms, rages, and vengeful hard-line stands. Holbrooke, always formal with Izetbegovic, could deal with Silajdzic as an equal. Since Izetbegovic was an unwilling negotiator, Holbrooke knew that Dayton would come down to getting these two men, Silajdzic and Milosevic, to talk. But at Packy’s they ignored each other, barely shaking hands. Milosevic as in a foul temper over sanctions. He said that Holbrooke’s whole approach to the negotiations was stupid. “You don’t understand the Balkans.” “I’m sure I don’t, Mr President, but we’re here to make peace and I hope you’ll help us.” ’

And then there are a few (but only a few) direct quotes from Holbrooke’s diary.

4 November 1995
‘The most difficult thing here now is to gauge the psychological moments to put pressure on and to take pressure off, [Holbrooke told his diary]. How do we bring them to discuss their core issues? I do not yet know, but I know that it is like a psychological group session and it will take a lot of effort.’

9 November 1995
‘It’s increasingly unlikely we will have a peace agreement here, although it’s not impossible. There’s too much work to be done and too little time left. We don’t have enough support from Washington, and the Europeans are whining and moaning the whole time that they’re not being adequately consulted. But above all, the Bosnians are refusing to give us serious positions on any of the major issues. Without those positions, it’s impossible to negotiate.’

10 November 1995
‘Saturday, Sunday, Monday will be all map, [Holbrooke told his diary]. Christopher will come back Monday night and he leaves for Asia Tuesday. He will extend his stay and delay Asia if we’re close. If we’re not, he’ll leave for Asia, and we’ll start to figure out how to get out of here in one piece by the end of the week, announcing interim agreements and suspending this and saying that in a few weeks we will return to the shuttle after we digest. Well, this is all a ploy, I hope. I don’t want to return to the shuttle, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Dayton, so we’re going to go for broke now. We’re going to be out of here in a week. That’s our plan, and I think it’s a very good one. If these guys want to make peace, they can do it in a week.’

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