They call him “Hurricane Holbrooke,” a force of nature who will blow away obstacles that stop lesser men. People in the know also think that Richard Holbrooke, U..S. assistant secretary of state for European & Canadian affairs and the chief architect of the Bosnian peace accord, has an excellent chance to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the road to that Nobel, Holbrooke made a detour to Williamsburg. At the Colonial Capitol, he was honored for his role as a peacemaker by the Council for America’s First Freedom and by B’nai B’rith.
First Freedom is a Richmond-based nonsectarian organization established in 1984 that promotes the principles of religious freedom. B’nai B’rith is a 152-year-old Jewish organization that has a long history of defending human rights and promoting religious freedom, as well as volunteerism.
Holbrooke’s stay in Williamsburg provided a unique opportunity to learn a good deal about the background of the peace negotiations he conducted, as well as about future prospects for peace in Bosnia. Holbrooke just returned from that country, having accompanied President Clinton on his visit to American troops.
While talking with Holbrooke, one begins to understand the source of his extraordinary success in persuading people to think and act rationally and be willing to compromise. He is that unusual diplomat who tells it like it is.
Responding to a question on his role in unleashing the NATO bombers on Bosnian Serb military targets in the aftermath of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebenica and the killing of 37 innocent civilians in Sarajevo, as well as U. S. assent to the Croatian attack on Serb-occupied Krajina territory, Holbrooke doesn’t mince his words. He acknowledges that he supported both policies. “It wasn’t a Machiavellian maneuver, something deceitful,” he said. “It was a response to terrible atrocities and in support of legitimate rights.”
But a few minutes later, Holbrooke admitted, with apparent satisfaction, that as the result of the NATO bombing and the Croatian-Bosnian military victories, the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs was reduced from 70% to 49%. And this circumstance opened the way to meaningful peace negotiation in Dayton, Ohio.
By all indications, Holbrooke is a pragmatist who deals with situations as they are and not as they ought to be. In the middle of the Dayton peace negotiations, an American correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor was detained by the Bosnian Serbs for committing the “crime” of discovering a mass grave of murdered Bosnian Muslims. Reports indicated that the journalist’s life was in grave danger.
Holbrooke arranged a meeting between his wife, Kati Marton, a former ABC-V bureau chief in Germany and an accomplished writer, and Yugoslav President Milosevic. Marton, who serves as chairman of an organization dedicated to the protection of the right of journalists, prevailed upon Milosevic to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs. The American newsman, kept in a dungeon under terrible conditions, was released.
In spite of all the achievements that brought the killings to halt in Bosnia, Holbrooke is cautious in predicting what the future holds in that tortured land. “All we know is that our military’s stay in Bosnia is limited to about a year. The president said so to the American people. The United States and our partners in the peacekeeping effort will do everything in their power to bring stability to that troubled country. But there is only so much they can do. The rest is in the hands of the people who inhabit that land.”
What happens in Bosnia after Feb. 21 won’t be Holbrooke’s responsibility. After spending 19 years in public service, he is returning to private life. But when asked whether he would heed a presidential call for special assignment, Holbrooke replied: “Sure, I will go anywhere in the world if it is in America’s interest.”
Just as revealing as to what makes Holbrooke run was his response to the question of what was the driving forced behind the enormous effort he made to bring peace to Bosnia. “The fear of failure,” he said. “All my life I dreaded the thought of failing.”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.
(Editor’s Note: President Obama called Ambassador Richard Holbrook, who died at age of 69, “a giant of U. S. foreign policy.” The following column of a revealing interview with Holbrooke ran in Jan. 1996 in the Virginai Gazatter)