A few hours before Richard Holbrooke’s death on December 13, Hillary Clinton told a group of top U.S. diplomats at a State Department Christmas party that he was “practically synonymous with American foreign policy.” Her assessment is correct: Holbrooke’s career embodies some of its least attractive and most deeply flawed traits.
Holbrooke started as a low-level participant in an American political debacle, in and on Vietnam (1962-69). Following Holbrooke’s stint at Foreign Policy, in 1977 Jimmy Carter appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. In that position he was instrumental in securing continued U.S. support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and authorized arms deliveries to Indonesia in violation of the supposed U.S. arms embargo against Suharto’s regime.
It was during this period that the suppression of the Christian Timorese by the Muslim Indonesians reached genocidal levels, killing 200,000 people, nearly a third of the island’s population. Holbrooke’s response to a reporter’s question about that tragedy, to which he had directly contributed, was illustrative:
I want to stress I am not remotely interested in getting involved in an argument over the actual number of people killed. People were killed and that always is a tragedy but what is at issue is the actual situation...