WASHINGTON - Richard Holbrooke, a brilliant and feisty U.S. diplomat who wrote part of the Pentagon Papers, was the architect of the 1995 Bosnia peace plan and served as President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, died yesterday, an administration official said. He was 69.
Holbrooke, whose forceful style earned him nicknames such as "The Bulldozer" or "Raging Bull," was admitted to the hospital on Friday after becoming ill at the State Department. The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. had surgery Saturday to repair a tear in his aorta.
Holbrooke served under every Democratic president from John F. Kennedy to Obama in a career that began with a foreign-service posting in Vietnam in 1962 after graduating from Brown University, and included time as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam.
His sizable ego, tenacity and willingness to push hard for diplomatic results won him both admiration and animosity.
"If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just say yes," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said. "If you say no, you'll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful."
The bearish Holbrooke said he has no qualms about "negotiating with people who do immoral things."
"If you can prevent the deaths of people still alive, you're not doing a disservice to those already killed by trying to do so," he said in 1999.
Born in New York City on April 24, 1941, Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke had an interest in public service from his early years. He was good friends in high school with a son of Dean Rusk and he grew close to the family of the man who would become a secretary of state for presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Holbrooke was a young provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon. At the Johnson White House, he wrote one volume of the Pentagon Papers, an internal government study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The study, leaked in 1971 by a former Defense Department aide, had many damaging revelations, including a memo that stated the reason for fighting in Vietnam was based far more on preserving U.S. prestige than preventing communism or helping the Vietnamese.
Holbrooke, with his long-standing ties to Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a strong supporter of the secretary of state's 2008 bid for the White House. He had been considered a favorite to become secretary of state if she had won. When she dropped out, he began reaching out to the Obama campaign.
Reflecting on his role as Obama's special envoy, Holbrooke wrote in the Washington Post in March 2008 that "the conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam."
Holbrooke's relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was strained after their heated meeting in 2009 over the fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election. Karzai brushed it off, saying he had "no problem at all with Mr. Holbrooke." But the U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, not Holbrooke, were the ones who ended up developing the closest relations with the mercurial Afghan leader.
Holbrooke rejected direct comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but acknowledged similarities and repeatedly pressed the administration to do more to win the hearts and minds of both the Afghan and Pakistani people.