Covering Richard Holbrooke in the Balkans

With the death of Richard Holbrooke, American foreign policy has suffered a huge blow. It is difficult to imagine someone who can fill his shoes. As the United States envoy tasked with ending the Balkan wars, he outmaneuvered the players from all sides in the former Yugoslavia whether through threat, and use, of force or enticement of reward.

I was then Balkans correspondent for the Financial Times and one July day in 1996 stood in front of a government villa in Belgrade waiting with other reporters for the outcome of 11th-hour talks to salvage Bosnian elections. Holbrooke scored a victory by forcing Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to remove himself from public life. It would be more than a decade until the indicted war criminal was finally caught and brought to justice.

But Holbrooke understood Balkan power politics, and he understood how to get the best of the men sitting across the negotiating table. That day he explained his success to me: "President Milosevic and I have negotiated for so long that we know each other's styles so well."

Despite the immense responsibilities of his most recent position as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he remained keenly interested in the fate of the Balkans—aware that the Dayton Peace agreement he had secured, while flawed, had saved thousands of lives and had been a big victory for U.S. diplomacy.

When I saw him last month we discussed the upcoming 15th anniversary of Dayton and where Bosnia was going today. "You have to write that," he said.

Richard Holbrooke was tireless, remembering every detail of a negotiation years later or even a sentence of an article that went his way, and the very few that did not. After that closed-door all-night session with Milosevic in the summer of 1996, Ambassador Holbrooke recounted every twist and turn of the marathon conversation down to the food they ate. He even helped change the menu, he said. "I once told President Milosevic that I liked fish, so for the next 15 times we had fish. This time I told him I don't only like fish, so we went back to lamb." Holbrooke will be sorely missed.

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