Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: America needs another Richard Holbrooke ’62

Opinions Editor
Thursday, February 23, 2017

As far as American politics go, the events of the past few weeks have felt more like the deranged musings of a candy man writing an avant-garde space opera than reality. In a press conference with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump claimed that he could “live with” a one-state solution, dismissing the need to strike a good-faith compromise with the Palestinians. Days earlier, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, resigned after it was revealed that he misled the administration about a telephone conversation he had in December with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Soon after, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis essentially threatened to cut American funding for NATO, which protects most of the Western world, if other member states fail to boost their own military spending.

Of all the things the Trump administration desperately needs to be fluent in, foreign policy may be the most important. Not since the Cold War has the United States encountered so many concurrent perils. In this climate of global commotion, the administration’s reversal of well-established American foreign policy — belief in a fair peace between Israel and Palestine, suspicion of autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin and unflinching support for close partners — is dangerously discombobulating. And with Flynn’s departure and Trump’s promotion of white-supremacist-in-residence Steve Bannon — who has no official experience in security affairs — to the National Security Council, American foreign policy is on the verge of strategic bankruptcy.

Under more typical circumstances, Congress would be aggressively pursuing corrective action. Unfortunately for the party of former President Theodore Roosevelt, the GOP may speak loudly about putting “America first,” but carries a stick much too diminutive to enforce ethical behavior and act in the nation’s interest. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and is responsible for investigating official impropriety, appeared unfazed by Flynn’s departure. He told reporters that the situation “is taking care of itself at this point.” Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, echoed the importance of moving on from the Flynn scandal, telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo, “Guess what? (Flynn’s) resigned. Now what? We have a lot of issues to deal with. That’s how I live my life. I don’t dwell in the past.”

In a government that lacks the moral machinery to restrain immoral behavior, it will take individual resistance — perhaps even insubordination — to ensure that the Trump administration does not condemn the country to global irrelevance. Indeed, in diplomacy, one should never underestimate the power of one well-positioned bureaucrat with the will to achieve. Throughout the twentieth century, it has often been individual personalities of the highest moral character and ambition, in the highest echelons of the federal government, who have resolved ancient antipathies, restored relations and enabled peace.

Richard Holbrooke ’62, former Herald editor, the youngest assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and legendary American diplomat, is a prime example. Holbrooke served in every Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy’s, negotiated in 1995 an end to the conflict in Bosnia, which saw the deaths of over 100,000 people, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Elie Wiesel.

I cannot completely list all of Holbrooke’s achievements, and, like all policymakers, he had his fair share of flaws. But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in political science to see what a masterful diplomat he truly was. Endowed with the ability to seduce, cajole and intimidate all in a single meeting, Holbrooke had an eye for the sprawling narratives that undergird the endless machinations of the world. And, most importantly, he never let political calculations overwhelm his commitment to his fellow man. As one Dutch ambassador noted, he was “willing to use the word ‘evil’ when it’s appropriate.”

For all his courage and diplomatic dexterity, though, Holbrooke couldn’t quite fulfill his most profound ambition: to become the secretary of state. He was on the shortlists of several presidents and presidential hopefuls, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. Thankfully the plateau of his career did not stop him from indulging his ravenous intellect with new crusades and causes. He spent his last days in 2010 as a special representative in the State Department, flying monthly to Afghanistan and Pakistan, frenetically trying to sustain the prospect of stability and peace in the embattled region.

Holbrooke is the kind of leader America needs today — a public servant with an unflagging moral compass, a knack for finding sense and meaning in the chaos and, above all, loyalty to his ultimate employer: the American people. While this republic will never have another Holbrooke, Trump’s recently-appointed national security adviser, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, can be a much-needed reincarnation of Holbrooke’s experience and integrity. A hardened soldier and a consummate scholar, McMaster is known for his battlefield heroics during the Gulf War and for his 1997 book “Dereliction of Duty,” in which he called American military commanders’ inability to resist intervention in Vietnam “a uniquely human failure.” Hopefully, McMaster will stay true to his brilliant record and contain the Trump White House’s ever-brimming cauldron of strategic lunacy.

In the meantime, as we all wait for the next episode of Trump’s America, we can find some solace in Holbrooke’s enduring optimism about the future of America. In 2009, a little over a year before his death, Holbrooke told the New Yorker, “I still believe in the possibility of the United States, with all its will and all its strength, and I don’t just mean military, persevering against any challenge. I still believe in that.” Holbrooke’s legacies are innumerable, but hope — for a smarter America and safer world — may be his most essential. 

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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