4:01pm

Sun December 19, 2010
Afghanistan

One Final Lunch With Richard Holbrooke

Originally published on Wed December 22, 2010 2:53 pm

With the passing of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration has lost not only a key player on its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy team, but also a link to the U.S. experience in Vietnam, says Susan Glasser, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

Glasser was the last person to have lunch with Holbrooke; she met him for sushi in the State Department cafeteria the day before he fell ill. Holbrooke, whose last post was as the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, died at age 69 on Dec. 13, after emergency surgery for a torn aorta.

The Last Living Link

Holbrooke served under every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy. His storied career also included a five-year stint as the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine in the early 1970s.

When he joined the Obama administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan policy team in 2009, Glasser says, Holbrooke harkened back to his years as a young diplomat in Vietnam.

"In a way, this was the last guy who brought that living experience of Vietnam into the Afghanistan [team]," she says. "I think he desperately wanted to be able to find the solution that would bring us out of Afghanistan. Obviously, that didn't happen."

While he publicly disagreed with comparisons of the conflict in Afghanistan with the Vietnam War, Glasser says that Holbrooke would often make the connection privately.

"He didn't have some out-there notion that things were going well in Afghanistan. He was very clear about the terrible situation and the terrible bind that the U.S. found itself in," Glasser says.

For The Love Of The Game

In 1977, Jimmy Carter chose Holbrooke as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, making him, at 36, the youngest the serve in that job.

"Pride did not stop him from becoming an assistant secretary again under President Clinton," Glasser says.

When Glasser made a recent visit to the State Department, she says, Holbrooke gave her a tour of what he called the "worst offices he had since he worked at Foreign Policy."

They would be the last offices of the career diplomat, whom Glasser describes as "a guy who loved being in the game."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In the pantheon of legendary and deceased American diplomats, you'll find names such as Jefferson, Stimson(ph), Hull(ph), Marshall(ph), Dulles(ph) and now Holbrooke.

Richard Holbrooke died this past week at the age of 69. In the early 1970s, he left the diplomatic service for a few years to run Foreign Policy magazine. The day before he was rushed to the hospital, Susan Glasser, the current editor of the magazine, had lunch with Holbrooke at the State Department. It happened to be Richard Holbrooke's last lunch, and Susan Glasser wrote about that lunch. She joins me now.

Susan, thanks for being with us.

Ms. SUSAN GLASSER (Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy Magazine): Thank you so much.

RAZ: What did Richard Holbrooke say to you at that lunch?

Ms. GLASSER: I asked him a very funny question when we were walking into the State Department cafeteria, and his aides were running around. I said, Ambassador Holbrooke, how many people exactly do you have in your office these days? Which he laughed. That's a big subject of contention with his excellent ability to sort of grow his turf, and he had promised Hillary Clinton he would only have just a few aides. And he looked at me, he said, Susan, I don't know, and I'm going to keep it that way. Otherwise, I'll get in trouble. But the answer was a lot, a lot more than anybody thought.

RAZ: He had this remarkable career. Had it ended with his time in Vietnam, he would have been associated with that period. Then he becomes so closely associated with the peace accords in the Balkans and then, of course, towards the end of life, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was always clear he had hoped to become the secretary of State one day. He never achieved that. Do you get the sense that he was disappointed or that he sort of made peace with that?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, you know, that's such a good question. What I'm struck by is his repeated willingness to take on these incredibly difficult assignments.

This was a guy who loved being in the game and who said yes to the president when the president called over repeated presidencies. I think it's amazing that not only was he the assistant secretary in the Carter administration, but pride did not stop him from becoming an assistant secretary again under President Clinton.

He was also the assistant secretary then for Europe, and I think people forget that. You know, he was the special envoy, as you know, for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama.

You know, the day before he was stricken with this sudden illness, he was giving me a tour of his offices. He said they were the worse offices he had since he worked at foreign policy in the '70s. That to me suggests a guy who, yes, perhaps he had these grand ambitions, but more than anything else, he seemed to want to be in the game.

RAZ: Just the very next day after your lunch, he was rushed to the hospital. Immediately, it was made clear that he was in critical condition.

There have been some reports, well, a lot of reports, that while preparing for his surgery, he told his medical team he couldn't relax because he was worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and apparently his last words were, you've got to stop this war in Afghanistan.

The State Department was asked about it. They said it was meant as a joke. What do you think?

Ms. GLASSER: Well, the account that I saw said that, you know, there was a Pakistani member of his surgical team and that it was really addressed to him. And to me, that made sense. I could see, you know, Holbrooke saying something like that. I tend...

RAZ: But it wasn't like a deathbed confessional?

Ms. GLASSER: I tend to agree that it wasn't sort of a plea to the world to, you know, end this senseless war. It is definitely true that he didn't have some out-there notion that things were going well in Afghanistan. You know, he was very clear about the terrible situation and the terrible bind that the U.S. found itself in, and he made frequent references to Vietnam.

Although he was on the record publicly saying, you know, I don't agree with this comparison, my sense is that he made that comparison a lot himself and that he saw part of his value right now to the Obama administration in being the special representative to Afghanistan, that he was this living link to the U.S. experience in Vietnam.

He had served in provincial Vietnam on the ground as a young State Department employee. He had been the embassy in Saigon. He'd been a junior representative at the Paris Peace Talks. You know, in a way, this was the last guy who brought that living experience of Vietnam into the Afghanistan thing, and I think he desperately wanted to be able to find the solution that would bring us out of Afghanistan. Obviously, that didn't happen.

RAZ: That's Susan Glasser. She's the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and the last person to have lunch with the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Susan, thank you.

Ms. GLASSER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.