Now he has been appointed by President Obama to lead US policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That lot should keep him busy.
I attended a meeting with him at the FCO in 1999 to discuss Balkan issues. Some of his US colleagues sitting next to him were literally twitching with anxiety, lest he turn on them for some mistake and flick them into professional oblivion.
His negotiating style is uniquely aggressive, but with deft and penetrating psychological thrusts.
Back in Moscow in 1995 after dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence I watched as he sat on the sofa studiously winding up my boss Pauline Neville-Jones with some not-so implicit sexistly patronising insinuations. Pauline of course did not rise to the bait, but he knew that she would not do so and enjoyed watching the spectacle of her containing her annoyance, while she in turn seemed to know that he was enjoying that spectacle and so inwardly seethed all the more.
At the London meeting he started to open his briefcase, then rudely took a mobile phone call ("sorry, that was President Obasanjo") to put us in our place.
Continuing with the briefcase he laboriously started to pull out some papers, then began in a deeply phoney woeful tone :
"I’m disappointed. I’m very disappointed. Really. I am. You people are not helping us here. We thought you’d be with us, and you’re not…"
And so on, accompanied by all that twitching from the US Embassy people with him.
You needed nerves of steel to hit back hard and well against this sort of thing, which (it must be said) most UK diplomats did and do not possess. At one point I boldly interjected to say that something he had said was just not right, so he promptly changed the subject.
I have often wondered why precisely we Europeans can not produce anyone like Holbrooke to lead our diplomatic effort with bravura and amusing confidence, plus ruthless bullying/intimidation.
Partly it comes from the fact that in the US system a Holbrooke draws his authority directly from the White House, and the White House can pull lhard evers round the world which others just do not have.
But it is also a matter of style. We on this side of the pond seem to think that such a massive can-do and goddammit-will-do American attitude is just a bit … vulgar?
Lacking the nerve required to hit a target head-on, we do prefer rather more indirect – shall we say perfidious – methods. We try to make up for our lack of force and raw toughness with exaggerated cleverness. Sometimes ill-disguised with a fatuous eccentricity and/or foppishness to make it seem even more clever.
That said, Holbrooke is pretty unique even by US standards. Here is a shrewd piece written by a US fan:
Richard Holbrooke triggers incredible passion, some of it negative, among foreign policy professionals. He’s a Democrat, but many don’t understand why he’s not a Republican. Dems, some argue, are supposed to be about achieving moral goods in the world along purist pathways of good behavior and enlightened intentions. To some Holbrooke seems to be someone willing to deploy any tools that it takes to achieve his (and America’s) ends, and that puts him at odds with many in the so-called global justice community…
If Holbrooke brings some hard-nosed common sense to the ‘so-called global justice community’ he maybe is not all bad. And as the article points out, it is hard not to see the Dayton Peace Accords as some sort of significant moral victory with Holbrooke as the key driving-force accomplishing it.
Anyway, two people to pity are the US Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They know what is going to hit them.