Holbrooke's diplomatic magic needed again, at U.N. Negotiator's tough style might grate in New York

July 12, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, Richard Holbrooke's dominant, even overbearing, personality got him cut out of the center of power. Now it's dealing him back in.

In 1995, when he was the State Department official responsible for Europe, Holbrooke found himself excluded from key strategy sessions intended to end the war in Bosnia, at least in part because of his abrasive style.

But once the course was set, Holbrooke became the point man, pressuring and pummeling the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats into a deal -- the Dayton accords -- that ended the worst ethnic violence in Europe since World War II and finally won respect for President Clinton's international leadership.

Now, Holbrooke's powerful persona and penchant for the spotlight are in demand again, this time to rebuild American influence at the United Nations. Tapped by Clinton as ambassador to the world body, Holbrooke, 57, is expected also to raise the United Nation's profile with members of Congress and the American public at a time when it is under sharp assault.

Moreover, the job carries Cabinet rank, giving Holbrooke a leg up to become secretary of state if Al Gore is elected president in 2000.

"I'm sure he will bring some more dynamism and more sparks to the policy-making process," said a senior administration official. To one admiring former colleague, having Holbrooke on the team "is like putting premium gas in your gas tank."

State Department officials say Holbrooke combines a sweeping grasp of issues with the ability to move bureaucracies and inspire staff.

Questions persist, however, about Holbrooke's willingness to serve as a team player. His shouting matches and tendency to try to dominate meetings are legendary; he is reported once to have accused a high-ranking military officer of insubordination to the president.

"The U.N. is a global platform that gives an activist individual a lot of room to play," said John Bolton, a former assistant secretary of state in charge of international organizations. "That can cause problems for a secretary of state."

Madeleine K. Albright, who bested Holbrooke in the competition to become Clinton's second-term secretary of state, welcomes him to the table as an activist soul mate who believes in the idea of diplomacy backed by force. But she has noted pointedly that Holbrooke will be working for her and urged him privately to avoid public statements that conflict with the State Department line.

The rough-and-tumble, head-knocking skills he displayed at Dayton don't fit the United Nations, said a high-ranking U.S. diplomat.

"The U.N. environment is one of building consensus," this diplomat said. "It requires enormous tact and subtlety."

Holbrooke's magic failed him in two recent diplomatic forays -- to dampen the ongoing crisis between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and to end a new wave of Balkan fighting, this time in the volatile Serbian province of Kosovo.

His heavy reliance on the pragmatism of Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, has invited complaints that Holbrooke has played down Milosevic's role as the man who inspired the murderous Serbian aggression. Holbrooke says he works with Milosevic because the Yugoslav leader can deliver.

"Holbrooke made Milosevic his partner at Dayton, but that was after NATO force had backed U.S. diplomacy," said John Fox, who heads the Washington office of the Open Society Institute, funded by philanthropist George Soros. "Now we have Holbrooke and Milosevic without NATO -- there's a big difference."

Holbrooke's allies note that he is just one of several U.S. diplomats seeking a Kosovo solution, and insist that NATO is ready to act if called upon.

But neither setback has dimmed Holbrooke's reputation for seizing the moment in negotiations and for using all the tools at his disposal, including threats and bullying.

Bitter early lesson

Holbrooke learned a bitter lesson in diplomatic timing in 1968, when, as a 26-year-old foreign service officer, he joined the Paris team headed by W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance seeking a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.

Despite repeated urging by his negotiators, President Lyndon B. Johnson waited until the week before the 1968 election to stop the bombing of North Vietnam. No peace agreement was reached.

"An opportunity to end the war -- and not just the bombing -- suddenly slipped away, and the conflict continued for another four years," Holbrooke writes in an afterword to his memoir of the Dayton talks. "A negotiated end to the war in 1968 was possible; the distance to peace was far smaller than most historians realize."

Holbrooke's own chance to end a war came three decades later, long after his years as Peace Corps director in Morocco, managing editor of the journal Foreign Policy, his first political appointment as an assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Carter administration and a lucrative career as a New York investment banker.

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