This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death of Richard Holbrooke, coming at a time of crisis in the Afghan war, reminds us of the outsized role that can be played by our greatest diplomats. He was a diplomat of what might be called the heroic school, a man of action and intellect. We didn’t always agree with him. But we shared some things, including, for starters, a career-long investment in the struggle for a free Vietnam. We respected him enormously for his intelligence, his patriotism, his capacity for work, and for the passion he brought to the practice of statecraft.
When news came that Holbrooke had died, we went to the archives of the Sun to read the columns that we carried during the years when he was out of office. The columns, written for the Washington Post syndicate, are a reminder of something we are gaining a glimpse of through the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, which is that the crafts of diplomacy and journalism have, for all their differences, certain similarities. Both involve reporting and analyzing and writing, and Holbrooke, who had tried after college to gain a job on the New York Times, was a master.
There was, for example, a column called “Guns of August” warning against what he called a “muddled version of Wilsonianism.” There was another called “The Paradox of Kennan,” in which he wrote of both his admiration of and his differences with the man who, though he had been the architect of containment, had no appetite for the promotion of democracy abroad. In the piece, Holbrooke told of going with Averill Harriman to Kennan’s home at Princeton for dinner with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who had recently defected to our side.
In a dispatch from Tbilisi called “Goliath Tries To Depose David,” he called for making the cause of freedom and independence for Georgia a test case for American statecraft. In a dispatch from August, 2006, two years before he would accede to his final assignment as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he cabled a column from Kabul called “The Long Road Ahead.” In it he acknowledged the risk of creating in Afghanistan an “Iraq-like anti-American xenophobia” but argued against cuts to American aid there that were then being made by the Congress.
No doubt these columns were but a minor part of Holbrooke’s vast career, but they were the part that the Sun was honored to share directly. What strikes us about them is the way in which he passed one of our own tests for public officials, namely how they conduct themselves when they are out of power. It’s only one test, to be sure, but Holbrooke spent such years in the best possible way, roaming, reporting, and writing it up beautifully. No doubt it gave him a leg up when his chance came again for high office and a more direct role in the quest for peace and democracy to which he devoted his life.