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Richard Holbrooke and His Times

Richard Holbrooke's life ended as he faced the greatest challenge of his career: to successfully negotiate peace in Afghanistan. His unexpected passing has drawn attention to his service under every Democratic administration of the last half-century, highlighting the foreign policy tragedies and triumphs of his lifelong political party.

The son of Jewish émigrés who fled Europe in the 1930's, the President's emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan entered the Foreign Service in 1962. He served in Vietnam as an assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and General Maxwell Taylor before moving back to the United States to work inside the White House during the final years of the embattled Johnson presidency.

Described after his death as one of the "best and the brightest," Holbrooke joined the foreign policy establishment just as the Democratic Party was reaching its high water mark in American politics. Sitting at its top were men such as McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk. Rising in its ranks were Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher, future Secretaries of State under whom Holbrooke would later serve during the Carter and Clinton administrations.

The decades of experience in diplomacy Holbrooke brought to the Obama administration were a job qualification he did not let others easily forget. "We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time" he said of his Vietnam years at a ceremony marking the beginning of his tenure as Special Envoy in 2009. Such depth and breadth of foreign affairs experience has become a rare commodity among Democrats, in part because of their electoral setbacks that reflect the enduring political and cultural divisions stemming from that war. From Jimmy Carter's hostage crisis to Michael Dukakis' tank ride to John Kerry's swift boat, Democrats have struggled to persuasively articulate and defend their vision for American foreign policy. In the process, they have failed to reverse a rightward political shift in the realm of national security that first emerged in the late 1960's.

Consequently, after having been shut out of the executive branch during five of the last eight presidential administrations, the party is today left with a dearth of individuals prepared to address the toughest foreign affairs challenges. In Washington, questions have already risen as to whether anyone in the President's own party can fill the shoes that will be left by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after he steps down next year. In its recent coverage, the BBC speculated that the White House may consider appointing Zalmay Khalilzad -- a former ambassador to Afghanistan and the UN under George W. Bush and member of the vaunted neoconservative Project for a New American Century -- to replace Holbrooke.

Though the idea of appointing members of the opposing political party to critical national security positions may be anathema to Democratic stalwarts, the President should not be hindered from seeking the most qualified individuals to join his cabinet, regardless of their party affiliation. Rising above political lines in the name of America's national security is not without precedent: Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision in 1940 to re-nominate Republican Henry Stimson to head the War Department (as it was then called) has been cited by historians as one the wisest appointments of his presidency. More recently, Bill Clinton selected William Cohen, Republican Senator of Maine, to lead the Pentagon from 1997 to 2001.

Yet a look back at Richard Holbrooke's career reveals a Democratic Party that has relinquished its once-impeccable credentials on national security and foreign policy, and as a result boasts few members of his caliber who are today ready to assume high-level leadership in these areas. This remains a problem, despite the efforts of such organizations as the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security, which have sought to cultivate new thinking and reinvigorate the national conversation on foreign and national security affairs.

Richard Holbrooke will be remembered for his highly successful career representing his country, negotiating on its behalf and helping to end some of the world's most intractable conflicts. Travelling to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 2000's, I can recall visiting a small war museum in the suburbs of Sarajevo, where the city's siege had once been broken. Inside hung a photo of Holbrooke posing with an elderly woman wrapped in a headscarf, her smile no doubt a product of the peace he helped bring to her country.

The man destined to become Secretary of State in the administrations of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton that never took office, Richard Holbrooke nonetheless carved out an important role for himself, in service to his country. His reach in resolving conflicts in geopolitical hotspots around the globe should be remembered by the leaders of a party that remains divided on its approach to foreign policy, as last year's policy debate over Afghanistan revealed. The task Ambassador Holbrooke left behind- to negotiate a conclusion to the on-going war in that country- is critical. The fortunes of his country hang in the balance, as does the future of the Democratic Party and its next generation of leaders.

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