ON Sept 8, 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, wrote to the secretary of the Army requesting that an exception to policy be granted to allow Richard C Holbrooke to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Holbrooke had collapsed in her office nine months earlier. He died soon after while serving in the most thankless of his many assignments, as President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Few diplomats throughout history have made as deep and sustained an impact upon the course of war and peace than Richard did, and few civilian leaders have consistently provided more support to the US military,” Clinton wrote in her appeal. “Indeed, his nearly fifty-year career in public service was inextricably intertwined with our military, and, more than once, Richard found himself on the front lines, the living embodiment of ‘one mission, one team.’” Arlington Cemetery is reserved for active or retired members of the Armed Forces and their families, but several exceptions have been made over the course of its history in cases of what are deemed to be exceptional civilian service benefiting the military - and sometimes for other reasons.
Clinton, in a two-page letter made available to me, went on to describe Holbrooke’s long diplomatic career - as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam; at the Paris Peace talks that led to the end of that conflict; as ambassador to Germany at a time of post-Cold War military transformation; as the diplomat who “brokered the historic Dayton Accords that brought the bloody war in the Balkans to a close”; and finally in “the most complex and vexing foreign and military policy challenge of our day” in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That last assignment was particularly “vexing” because Obama and Holbrooke never got along. The “no drama” president had little patience for high-drama Holbrooke.
There was no significant place in the president’s young, tight-knit foreign policy team for this man of vast experience and sweeping insights. Holbrooke had backed Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries; his loyalty was questioned. In an extraordinary put-down, Obama took several staffers with him to Afghanistan in March, 2010, but not Holbrooke, his supposed point man.
In hindsight, this clash offered indications of how Obama’s hesitant foreign policy, forged in that narrow White House circle, would evolve. The president has just declared that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was talking about possible military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a comment later narrowed by his spokesman to apply to military strikes against ISIS in Syria). The comment, however construed, should not have been uttered. It conveys indecision even if intended to convey methodical caution. It suggests weakness.
The remark was of a piece with others about hitting singles and doubles but rarely more as American president, and running a no-stupid-stuff foreign policy, and various riffs on the limits of American power in a tough world. There is merit to prudence after a season of American rashness. But the appearance of feckless incoherence from the White House is very dangerous - as the eruptions in the Middle East and Ukraine have underscored.
Holbrooke was a passionate believer in American power and its capacity for good. He acknowledged American failings but would never talk down the transformative power of a nation that is also an idea.
Realism, even fierce realism, could never efface idealism about America’s ability to spread freedom. It is a pity Obama shunned him. More experienced, battle-hardened voices might have helped the president.
On Oct. 26, 2011, John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, wrote to Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, who had petitioned for an exception, to say that he had reviewed all the information available to him, “including letters of support from some of our Nation’s most senior officials,” and concluded that “Ambassador Holbrooke, unfortunately, is not eligible to be laid to rest at Arlington.” McHugh wrote that Holbrooke’s “national and international service was exceptional,” but noted that “interment and inurnment at Arlington is deeply rooted in military service.” Holbrooke never served in the military.
Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me he was a strong supporter of the idea that Arlington be Holbrooke’s resting place. “I felt very strongly about it because Richard spent so much time with the military through so many conflicts,” he said. “He was deserving.” But Mullen, who also wrote on Holbrooke’s behalf, believed that only a White House intervention could change McHugh’s decision - and knew that would not be forthcoming. The White House did not respond to emails seeking comment.
My own view of Holbrooke was etched by watching him bring the war in Bosnia to an end - a remarkable achievement involving the full panoply of American power, diplomatic and military. Through skill and conviction at the service of clear strategy, the impossible was achieved at Dayton. Not another shot was fired in anger.
Clinton wrote that Holbrooke was a “great warrior for peace.” As an emblem of service and resolve that America sorely needs today, he was worth an Arlington exception.–NY Times