Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Last of the postwar liberals"

Leon Wieseltier has a memorable tribute to Holbrooke:
On the day that Holbrooke suffered the cataclysmic collapse from which he never recovered, The New York Times reported that Henry Kissinger—the Republicans’ most accomplished Machiavellian—remarked in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Such unforgettably filthy words would never have crossed Richard Holbrooke’s lips. In government and out, not least in his groundbreaking work at Refugees International, his career was a loud and effective refutation of that chilling “maybe.”

More positively, Wieseltier manages to capture how personality informed theory and practice:
Holbrooke was not only a student of power; he was also a creature of beliefs. What he believed in most of all, I think, was in the ability, and the duty, of the United States, by a variety of means, to better the world. He was, in his cast of mind, a realist, but his cast of mind was not his philosophy: this realist—the Democrats’ most accomplished Machiavellian—was always returning to first principles, to moral considerations, to the alleviation of human suffering and the spread of political liberty as goals of American statecraft. He came away from his early years in Vietnam with lessons but without a syndrome. He was unanguished about the use of American force, when it was morally justified and intelligently applied—which is to say, he was the last of the postwar liberals. Even in his most virulent criticism of what he regarded as America’s military mistakes abroad, there was not a trace of the temptation to surrender a high sense of America’s role in history. Isolationism disgusted him. He had a natural understanding, it was almost an attribute of his character, of the relationship between diplomacy and force. He had no illusions about the harshness of the world, and therefore about the toughness that is required for the creation of a world less harsh.

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