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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Holbrooke's next mission

After striking a deal on Kosovo, Holbrooke faces the tough task of getting his U.N. appointment through the Senate

By Doug Waller

TIME magazine

(TIME, Oct. 26) -- It's hard to imagine a place more different from dreary Belgrade. In an eighth-floor apartment above New York City's Central Park West, Richard Holbrooke slumps into a soft couch in his book-lined study to recount his latest diplomatic adventure. Sipping a Diet Coke and fielding phone calls while he talks, Holbrooke is clearly a man wired by more than caffeine. Back from the Balkans fewer than three days--and with a fragile peace in hand--he is answering calls of congratulations and patching up some final diplomatic work.

As the world turns its attention from Kosovo, Holbrooke is switching his focus to the political intrigue of Washington, where his nomination to be United Nations ambassador awaits. Stalled by a probe into allegations that he made improper contacts with U.S. officials while working as an investment banker, and overshadowed by the political dominance of Senator Jesse Helms, Holbrooke may face a set of enmities in Washington almost as complex as those that cleave Kosovo.

Holbrooke is, of course, used to a little conflict. He emerged as America's trouble-shooting ambassador back in 1995, when he brokered the Bosnian peace. With a long diplomatic pedigree--his first job was working for the State Department in Vietnam--he has brought personality to the gray world of diplomacy. Most prospective nominees would have stayed far out of sight for fear of doing anything that might have spoiled their chances. Holbrooke, however, accepted the high-profile assignment to try to stop the killing in Kosovo. The dangers were substantial: a blown peace agreement could wreck his nomination. But for all his personal splinters--critics accuse him of being too ambitious and a publicity hog--Holbrooke has a real willingness to take risks.

Holbrooke's Balkan ballet this month was a pretty good indicator of why he thrives on such high-octane politics--and why even his critics give him credit for being steel-stiff under pressure. He is, for instance, an expert in the art of intimidation--an essential tool when dealing with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. When Holbrooke arrived in Belgrade on Oct. 5, as NATO planners began to tune up a massive strike against the Serbian forces in Kosovo, Milosevic had the gall to challenge Holbrooke with a small joke. "Are you Americans crazy enough to bomb us over our security police?" he asked. "Yeah," Holbrooke quietly replied, "we are." The deal he won in Belgrade, which calls for a Serbian pullback and 2,000 "verifiers" to help assure a peace, comes from Holbrooke's understanding of how the Serb leaders think, a process of brutal rationality.

He also knows the human cost of all this violence. One night two weeks ago, Holbrooke and Christopher Hill, U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, arrived in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to brief ethnic Albanian leaders on the talks. Holbrooke was exhausted, and emotion percolated into his tired brain as he considered the consequences of a failed negotiation. "We may not see you again before the bombing starts," Holbrooke soberly told Albanian dissident leader Ibrahim Rugova. A quiet settled over the group. Hill said under his breath, "We may never see you again."

Holbrooke has always married his passion for diplomacy with pragmatism. Nowhere was that more vivid than in his fight this fall to secure his nomination to the U.N. post. Clinton picked him for the job in June but then delayed the nomination after State Department inspectors received an anonymous letter, suspected to be from a disgruntled employee, that accused Holbrooke of having had improper contacts with State Department officials after he became vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston in 1996.

Holbrooke responded to the accusations with a blitz of information. Aides insisted that Holbrooke did keep up contacts with the department but only because Clinton had recalled him to negotiate disputes in Bosnia. And in private, Holbrooke's powerful friends strongly put out the word that he was clean. Sources close to the investigation tell TIME that the Justice Department has so far reached the same conclusion, and is expected to report soon that there were no violations. And something else as well: "He's a hero now," says a State Department aide. "It's hard to attack someone like that."

Hero or not, Holbrooke's future is still tied in many ways to this latest agreement. Congress won't take up his nomination until the beginning of next year, and by then he may have more explaining to do on the Kosovo deal. Critics complain that Milosevic wasn't pinned down on exactly how many soldiers and policemen he'll pull out, and the autonomy he promises for the province won't satisfy Kosovo's embittered ethnic Albanians. NATO vows to punish him militarily if he cheats, but the threat may prove hollow with 2,000 unarmed civilian monitors on the ground. "As long as we have 2,000 potential hostages in Kosovo, our leverage against Milosevic is severely reduced," complains Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton expert on the Balkans. And the deal remains shaky: late last week NATO granted Milosevic extra time to move his troops out of Kosovo. Another delay could obliterate Holbrooke's truce.

But as winter settles on both the Balkans and Central Park West, Holbrooke has clearly engineered the kind of delicate success that makes up the work of most international politics. The best diplomacy drives the ideals of nations and the demands of their interests into durable agreements that are a mixture of passion and pragmatism. The Kosovo truce may or may not emerge as such a balance. But Holbrooke's personal blend--a temperament that is almost exactly as rational as it is bold--may yet see him into the U.N.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Belgrade


Cover Date: October 26, 1998

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