Holbrooke: Pessimist, optimist or gardener?

by Ken Feltman

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
– Winston Churchill

Diplomacy is not considered suitable work for idealists. Even optimists are out of place in the diplomat’s realistic, often cynical world. But some commentators who studied the WikiLeaks documents expressed concern at the naiveté displayed by more than a few American diplomats. Put another way, the leaked documents show a lack of cynicism not expected from competent diplomats.

“It’s a little disarming,” laughed one foreign diplomat at a December luncheon in Washington. “Here we have the most powerful country on earth still believing it has a duty to help people oppressed by another government a continent away. Don’t you remember people in many countries cheering 9-11? Forgot already?”

“I supposed it’s charming in a way, this belief in democracy and its benefits,” said a second. “But it’s so impractical in today’s world.”

“Reliance on optimism is not a proper way for a nation’s intelligence service to function,” sniffed another. “Human nature is dark.”

Sentimental fools?

Those three diplomats are not expressing conventional wisdom about the United States. Aren’t we a bully, pushing our agenda and best interests on other nations? Many countries openly practice realpolitik, stark and tough minded. Do their diplomats think that Americans are sentimental fools, hooked on impractical notions involving capitalism and democracy? They see dictators, ruthless and acquisitive. Read some of the WikiLeaks documents and you may conclude that we Americans ignore the dictators and see people struggling for the right to vote and wanting jobs so that they can feed their families.

As autocrats siphon off the wealth of a country and live a rich life, with stolen funds safe in secret bank accounts, do we Americans look past the theft and see destitute people dreaming the same dream that we have dreamed for generations? Do Americans have this quaint habit of wanting to share an impractical dream?

Yes and no. We Americans may show all the outward signs of sentimental fools. Not only that, we are the fools with the largest storehouse of weapons. What is the world to do with us? A fool with weapons is dangerous. We are all worrying about North Korea, right? Certainly, sometimes we are dangerous. But sometimes we summon up what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” and accomplish great things – or at least necessary and possibly important things. Are those things really naive or are they just the American way of practicing the politics of realism?

On the heels of WikiLeaks, the death last month of Richard Holbrooke reminds us of what we are and how we appear to others. Holbrooke’s death was called “untimely” by countless commentators. Of course it was. It could never have been anything but untimely so long as Holbrooke was still involved in working out his vision for eliminating yet another source of unfairness and suffering, somewhere in the unforgiving world. His was a lifelong quest for decency for everyone, everywhere.

Holbrooke typified the American fool, heading out against the dragons of our time, armed with American ego and optimism. Holbrooke was so American, a mirror held up to our national face. What can we, and others, learn about ourselves from Holbrooke?

A measure of his stature was that his detractors were reduced to telling the truth about him. It was a truth that he admitted and relished: He thought very highly of himself. Holbrooke was so open about his conceit that he made it an endearing quality. He could be irascible, stubborn and arrogant. He could be very difficult to be around if you were not bewitched by his current project and his grand plan for resolution. He was pushy. He elbowed and ranted. But he succeeded so often, especially after others had failed, that he could never be ignored. Beside, in success he was modest and anxious to move on to the next challenge.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Holbrooke wide latitude. After all, Holbrooke sometimes careened toward solutions and needed a wide berth. She knew him well and kept enlarging the berth. Unconfined, he responded with unimagined solutions – unimagined by everyone but Holbrooke, that is.

The diplomacy of a ruthless gardener

He was compulsive, a dreamer of ever bigger dreams. Yesterday’s dream was too small for today. His friends saw him as a gardener who tore out even the most beautiful flowers to make way for a grander garden next year. They tolerated his petulance with a respect seldom extended to anyone. They saw his achievements. They called him a genius.

They saw Holbrooke as a man forever defending the powerless against the stacked-against system, refusing to recognize failure and setting a pace that few could follow. One who equaled his energy as well as his intricate mind was Kati Marton, the Hungarian-American author and journalist. Both were twice divorced and some of their friends predicted that their forceful, assertive personalities would soon clash. But she was his match and he was hers. From their first date in Paris on Christmas of 1993, a few months after Marton’s difficult separation from newscaster Peter Jennings, they flourished. They married in Budapest in the spring of 1995 and, within six months, Holbrooke achieved his hallmark success: The Dayton Accords.

Each of them had enough energy for both of them. Their combined energy was overwhelming. An Asian diplomat saw Holbrooke and Marton at a party a year ago and commented, “Holbrooke even got marriage right.”

Was Holbrooke really that American fool who believed that democracy and free markets could solve almost any problem? He did believed in the potential of people and the notion that democratic countries seldom attack their neighbors. Holbrooke was anything but cynical, but Holbrooke was also anything but an idealist. He wanted democracy to spread because he thought – as most Americans do – that the spread of democracy makes the U.S. safer.

Holbrooke’s weapons of choice

Some may not understand that democracy can be a weapon and that free markets can be another weapon. Sometimes, before those weapons can be deployed, you must stop the killing. Give Holbrooke credit: He was the man who got self-indulgent negotiators away from the temptations of Paris to an air base in the middle of Ohio. Then, when the agreement was ready, he let everyone return to Paris for the official signing. He delivered. The killing stopped.

His death is a loss for Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and the world. His death is a loss for the simple but overlooked pursuit of dignity for people everywhere. True, giving others freedom insures American freedom. It also extends freedom to more people. His death may be the loss of innocence for American diplomacy, at least for a while. We may be stuck with smooth, charming but hard-bitten diplomats, men and women who lament the world’s woes but do not change things.

I believe that Kati Marton will write about her husband, eventually. Her account will be loving and true. She will see no reason to embellish. As she tells us about him, she will tell us about ourselves, about what it is to be American in the rough and tumble of the 21st century. She will tell us that he took the tools at hand and the circumstances he found and fashioned workable solutions. She will sum him up accurately: Holbrooke was very good at what he did and he knew it.

I will take super-sized ego anytime to get Richard Holbrooke’s feel for justice, for his belief in the capacity of supposedly ordinary people to accomplish the unexpected. I will take his practical but relentless approach. I will take his ability to end the process by bringing tough situations to a finish.

At the conclusion of Candide, Voltaire does not have Pangloss saying that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Instead, he has Candide saying “we must cultivate our gardens.”

Is it so bad that the most powerful country in the world had a diplomat who was a very good gardener?

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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