Richard Holbrooke's death: can we make do without outsized diplomats?

Do today's politics allow for it?

Maybe it’s immature to hope that the determination of powerful individuals, rather than the patient efforts of many, will solve big political problems. But who isn’t at least a bit susceptible to the longing for outsized leadership, especially when the trouble at hand looks truly daunting?

And no challenge has seemed more intractable in recent years than Afghanistan. It’s why I suspect a major opportunity was missed when President Hamid Karzai was allowed to reject the appointment of the blustery and charismatic Lord Paddy Ashdown as UN special envoy to Afghanistan back in 2008. The U.S., Europe and Canada should have insisted Karzai work with Ashdown, who was indomitable as the international community’s overseer in Bosnia from 2002 to 2006.

The death on Monday of Richard Holbrooke, 69, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan since last year, removes another rare personality from the mix. Grant Kippen, the Canadian former chairman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission, tells me by email that he met him a couple of times last year, and concurs with the general outpouring on the “significance and enormity” of Holbrooke’s contribution.

I also asked Jeremy Kinsman, a retired diplomat who served as Canada’s ambassador in many countries, including Russia and the European Union, for his thoughts. “He was the sort of larger-than-life figure that only the U.S. presidential system tolerates at the sub-foreign minister level,” Kinsman said.

That meant Holbrooke was given a lot of latitude to operate as he saw fit. That’s unusual, but, according to Kinsman, not unheard of among American diplomatic heavyweights. “The U.S. gives operational leeway to trusted and capable envoys no other country permits, including a profile in the media and with Congress that makes these few great ones authorities in their own right.”

This sounds bracingly old-fashioned in an era—particularly here in Ottawa—of increasingly obsessive centralized control, not just of the foreign service, but of the entire bureaucracy. Of course there are drawbacks to giving mandarins the chance to establish their own identities. Kinsman says Holbrooke had “a huge ego” and “was pushy within his own system.”

But, Kinsman concludes, “It’s what it took.” The results were indeed undeniable, most notably in Holbrooke’s brokering of the Dayton peace accords, which ended the war in Bosnia.

We’ll never know how much he might have accomplished in the even more difficult mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Somebody else will now have to try to fill the gap. But does today’s politics allow such individuals to arise? Or is our era of instant, incessant communication inherently too meddlesome for the sort of diplomats who need time and flexibility to allow their own personalities to help shape events?

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