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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Jumping into the fire

Richard Holbrooke finally takes his seat at the U.N.--and tackles Kosovo's growing chaos

By Douglas Waller/Pristina

August 30, 1999
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

TIME magazine

No one has ever accused Richard Holbrooke of avoiding risks. And there's something fascinating about watching a man who has so much to lose--he's tabbed as a possible future Secretary of State--making big, risky bets with his reputation. It's like watching NASCAR for the wrecks, not the finish. Last week Holbrooke jetted into Kosovo to try to jump-start a U.N. relief effort in danger of deteriorating. "The future of the United Nations is being tested here," Holbrooke said as he bounced along the road to Cikatovo, a Kosovar village where Serbian forces executed at least 100 ethnic Albanians and pushed their bodies over a cliff. "We have to remember why we're here," Holbrooke said as he looked at the gravesite.

There is not much upside for Holbrooke in Kosovo: a failure here could cost him credibility. Since the war's end, the province has descended into a bureaucratic hell where everyone claims to be in charge of everything, but no one takes responsibility for anything. The slow-moving U.N., instead of providing solutions, serves mostly as an excuse, as in, "The U.N. was supposed to do that." "Things aren't going well at all," says a U.N. adviser based in Pristina. "We're at the point of a make-or-break, do-or-die situation."

Rolling the Dice

Holbrooke is betting he can shore up the U.N.'s efforts in Kosovo

Kosovo's former guerrillas haven't been cooperating with the U.N. Holbrooke hopes to muscle them into a real alliance

Holbrooke will press other nations to contribute long-promised aid that is badly needed before winter arrives

The U.N.'s Kosovo operation is a bureaucratic zoo. Holbrooke will try to push the Pristina-based effort to move faster

Holbrooke arrived in Pristina just days after being sworn in as U.N. ambassador. He had been in danger of setting an unenviable record: being held up for a job longer than the time he'd have to serve in it. Bill Clinton chose him 14 months ago, but congressional roadblocks, including an investigation into his financial dealings, delayed confirmation.

He will begin the task in Pristina. In particular, he is hoping he can get the Kosovo Liberation Army to cooperate with the U.N. That may be tough. K.L.A. insiders say Holbrooke's word doesn't mean as much as that of State Department spokesman James Rubin, who helped broker the deal that gave the K.L.A. a political boost. U.S. intelligence officials in Pristina are openly questioning the wisdom of cooperating with the K.L.A., which so far has delivered little more than revenge killings, rapes and headaches for the U.N.

Holbrooke may be more successful in persuading European countries to step up their aid to Kosovo, including some of the promised donations that have not yet arrived. Scores of villages have received no help, hundreds of factories sit idle, and more than 70,000 roofs need repair. "The clock," says a European aid official, "is ticking faster than we can move." And with Pristina's air already carrying a hint of winter nip, it is clear there won't be much room for error. Between sessions with U.N. workers, Holbrooke planned to drop in for a visit at Tricky Dick's, a Pristina gin joint named for him. It may prove a dubious honor, especially if Holbrooke's diplomatic tricks cannot save this troubled province.

--With reporting by Anthee Carassava/Pristina


Cover Date: September 6, 1999

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