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Ambassador A-List


As for Holbrooke's current round of diplomatic dinners, his intent is to introduce key Washington officials to U.N. diplomats and throw New York glitz into the mix (at a recent dinner, he paired Robert De Niro -- You talkin' to me? -- with national-security adviser Sandy Berger). "The purpose," Holbrooke says with rare diplomatic understatement, "is to promote American policy interests."

But Henry Kissinger, a frequent dinner guest, notes that Holbrooke makes a point of including journalists. "He works skillfully to use his Waldorf apartment to create various constituencies," Kissinger says. "When you've been to dinner, you may not be so determined to go for the jugular without overwhelming evidence."

With only a year or so left to the Clinton administration, Holbrooke has no time to waste in making his mark. He's been globe-trotting to the world's hot spots in recent weeks, stopping in East Timor in November, where he was shown worldwide on CNN barking at armed militiamen who balked at letting refugees return home. In December, he set off on the most thankless diplomatic itinerary of all, a trip visiting eleven different fractious African states. Arriving back on a Sunday afternoon after the 30-hour trip, Holbrooke was hoarse and nearly keeling over from exhaustion when he arrived at the Plaza two hours later for an American Jewish Committee dinner. Deviating from a prepared speech honoring civil-rights activist Morris Abram, Holbrooke had the look of a man who wanted to grab the well-dressed audience by the collar, speaking with anger about witnessing Africa's twin scourges, constant warfare and the aids epidemic. "It's easy for people to say, 'That's not our problem -- Africa's too difficult,' " he preached. "That may sound comfortable here in New York. But these problems have to be addressed."

Afterward, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, noting Holbrooke's visible jet lag, asked with concern, "Did you pace yourself on the trip?" Holbrooke just laughed. "What does that mean -- pace myself?" His staff has learned that their best chance to grab a minute is to ride with him between events, so there is always a line of people trying to squeeze into the backseat in his bulletproof Cadillac Fleetwood. Come along, and Holbrooke will eagerly discourse seriously on foreign policy but can't resist mischievous asides (quipping after a Washington speech that the audience was filled with "envious former colleagues") and entertaining anecdotes (such as the story about the frosty call he received this fall from Clinton, who was at the Waldorf suite and wanted to know why Ken Starr was on the speed dial. "This is the good Ken Starr, my accountant," explained an amused Holbrooke). Improbably, this overachiever already has tangible accomplishments to show for his efforts. Back in September, he pushed the National Security Council into an all-night session to pass a resolution quickly to send peacekeeping troops to bloody East Timor. "He said, 'We're not leaving until we get this thing done,' which is not the norm around here," says Nancy Soderberg, U.S. representative for special political affairs. Annan is a fan of Holbrooke's bulldozing style. "He'll call you early in the morning," Annan says. "He keeps calling, and he just keeps pressing until he gets it done. He pushes so hard that sometimes he irritates people. But he's also capable of saying 'I'm sorry.' "

Sitting in his spacious corner office at the mission on First Avenue overlooking the United Nations on a November Thursday afternoon, Holbrooke is on the phone with a Bosnian leader, wrangling over the logistics for a new negotiating session. The ambassador's conversation is alternately blunt ("That's crap") and conciliatory. "I apologize for yelling at you," he says -- then adds with a laugh, "but I'm sure I'll do it again."

Just days later, Holbrooke was browbeating the leaders of Bosnia's three-headed government into submission in a Sunday-afternoon meeting at the Waldorf suite that lasted until 1:30 the next morning. The three Bosnian presidents (representing the Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian sectors), onetime enemies presiding over an uneasy peace, reluctantly agreed to issue a common passport for all residents of that war-torn nation and to create a common border-police force representing all factions. Perhaps his most difficult task this fall involved successfully lobbying Congress to pass a bill to pay the United States' nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations. America's allies were enraged that the U.S. had become the U.N.'s biggest deadbeat. "It was becoming a huge problem," says Annan. "The decision of the U.S. not to pay offended friends and foes alike." But because Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, attached an anti-abortion provision to the U.N.-dues bill, Clinton vetoed the legislation twice (most notably in the fall of 1998, to keep feminists happy as the president braced for an impeachment vote), and it was languishing once again in Congress. Becoming a regular on the 6:30 a.m. shuttle to Washington, Holbrooke tramped the halls of Capitol Hill, arranging official and on-the-fly meetings with more than 70 congressmen, framing the vote as a national-security issue. "He was the first person from the administration to come see me on this issue," says Jim Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, who supported the U.N. vote. "He has a good way of lighting a fire." Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat who has known Holbrooke since the Carter administration and has knocked heads with him in the past -- "The ambassador can be abrasive as heck and charming" -- credits Holbrooke with deft lobbying. "This was not a high priority with the State Department or the president. Holbrooke put it on the list."

The end result was mixed. The White House cut a deal with the House Republicans to approve the $1 billion in dues that included a symbolic anti-abortion victory: a one-year ban on U.S. financing for international groups that promote abortion rights, mitigated by enough loopholes to assure the status quo. Women's-rights groups howled with fury, and Al Gore and Bill Bradley promptly denounced the deal. But Holbrooke is nothing if not a pragmatist. "Hey," he says, "we got the money."

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