1995: The year the future began
The conventional interpretation of Richard C. Holbrooke, principal architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the vicious war in Bosnia, is that he was a shrewd and colorful exponent of hard-nose diplomacy, a tireless international troubleshooter who recognized and exploited openings lesser men might not.
Such was the reputation built on Holbrooke’s success as an assistant secretary of state in bringing together the warring parties in Bosnia and keeping them at Dayton until they reached agreement. Success at Dayton was never a sure thing and the talks there 20 years ago this month were salvaged from failure only at the last possible moment.
All of which made The Diplomat, the HBO documentary about Holbrooke that aired the other night, something of a mild surprise: Even with its hagiographic flourishes, the documentary in the end was a fairly melancholy tale about a man whose outsize ambitions went mostly unfulfilled.
The film’s lingering impression was that of a striving, driven man of the world whose flaws kept him from living up to, or topping, his signal success in 1995. Holbrooke twice came close, and twice fell short, in fulfilling his ambition to become secretary of state; he died of complications from a torn aorta nearly six years ago during a frustrating assignment as the State Department’s point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The whiff of pathos was unexpected and likely unintended, given that the documentary-maker was Holbrooke’s eldest son, David, who early in the film said he had set out to get to know his father better after death than he had known him in life. Richard Holbrooke’s careers in government service and in investment banking often took him away from his family. One of the film’s most poignant moments came when Holbrooke’s first wife (of three) was asked what he was like as a husband.
She paused and for a moment looked puzzled. “Absent a lot,” she said.
The Diplomat says little about Holbrooke’s lucrative time on Wall Street, where he found refuge when the Democrats were out of power in the 1980s and early 1990s.
More central to the film, and thus more disappointing, was that it did not present a coherent retelling of the complex negotiation at Dayton.
As I write in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the talks were sui generis. Their nearest approximation, I note, were the Camp David talks of 1978 that produced a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The talks at Dayton, I write, “were more complex by many measures — in the number of participants, certainly, and in the depth of grievances and hatreds represented there.”
The Americans organized and guided the talks, which brought together the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, as well as representatives of the European Union and Russia.
The Diplomat touches on some key elements of the negotiations, notably the intricate bargaining over territory that produced two mostly autonomous statelets within Bosnia — a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic.
But the film blurs the details about how the agreement at Dayton came about, especially how Serb leader (and suspected war criminal) Slobodan Milosevic made key concessions. And the documentary left out altogether one of the most dramatic moments of the negotiation, when the talks teetered on collapse and Holbrooke dictated a grim draft statement that conceded failure.
That moment was memorably described this way in Derek Chollet’s fine book, The Road to the Dayton Accords:
“Standing over a computer, a visibly tired and agitated (and some thought crazed) Holbrooke dictated the language to [State Department speech writer Tom] Malinowski while the other Americans looked on in astonishment. His redraft reflected the frustration of the moment. ‘To put it simply,’ his statement concluded, ‘we gave it our best shot. By their failure to agree, the parties have made it very clear that further U.S. efforts to negotiate a settlement would be fruitless. Accordingly, today marks the end of this initiative . . . the special role we have played in recent months is over. The leaders here today must live with the consequences of their failure.'”
The film also skips over Holbrooke’s surprise decision, announced about a month after the Dayton accords were reached, to resign his post as assistant secretary of state for European affairs, which removed from Washington the most forceful advocate of the Dayton accords. Holbrooke said he intended to spend more time with his family in New York City.
He later said he had left too soon.
The Diplomat’s final segment is devoted to Holbrooke’s futile attempts to bring a negotiated peace to Afghanistan, a long-shot undertaking that placed him at odds with President Barack Obama, who never took to Holbrooke’s blunt, aggressive, and self-promoting ways.
Holbrooke despaired of his limited access to the president and clashed with White House officials about his restricted portfolio. He confided in Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, telling the journalist he doubted Obama’s Afghan policy could work. The film does not consider the wisdom, let alone the evident duplicity, of Holbrooke’s having opened up to Woodward.
(Woodward notes, correctly, that Holbrooke’s job as special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan essentially was a “portfolio without power.”)
Holbrooke wasn’t Obama’s guy. Holbrooke was closely and openly allied to the Clintons — with Bill, who as president tapped him to lead the Bosnia negotiations, and with Hillary, the secretary of state for whom he worked in 2009 and 2010.
The Clintons granted separate interviews to David Holbrooke and spoke in glowing terms about his father. So did many other friends and acquaintances. But the many enemies Holbrooke made in public service — he worked for every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson’s administration — were mostly silent, absent, or circumspect in their criticism.
As the documentary went on, a question began to gnaw: Why? Why devote documentary treatment to a flawed if flamboyant figure whose major achievement in diplomacy may now be on the verge of unraveling? Was his career in government service that interesting and consequential?
Holbrooke was skilled, perceptive, outspoken, and made important friends. But with the memorable exception of the negotiation he led on Bosnia, Holbrooke lacked the rank, the authority, and the clout to make lasting and decisive contributions.
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